More than a dozen Indian Americans among White House Science Fair exhibitors

Over a third of all participants are of Indian origin.

Image via whitehouse.gov
Image via whitehouse.gov

By Raif Karerat

WASHINGTON, DC: With the Obama administration’s final White House Science fair right around the corner on April 13, a glut of Indian American students are putting the final touches on their projects and prepping to exhibit them to the president himself.

Of the 38 students participating in the annual event, a dozen are of Indian origin.

President Obama inaugurated the first White House Science Fair six years ago in order to highlight the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and innovators emerging in the United States.

Recently, critics have implied that the U.S. has fallen behind its international peers in terms of bolstering STEM-related education.

“As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners,” President Obama said at the 2014 science fair. “Because superstar biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot-builders — they’re what’s going to transform our society. They’re the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases and new sources of energy, and help us build healthier, more successful societies,” he continued.

Here are the handful of luminaries of South Asian ancestry who were invited to the 2016 White House Science Fair, according to the official blog:

             1. Sindhu Bala – St. Louis, Missouri

Sindhu Bala, 12, Ellie Englund, 12, Sydney Gralike, 13, Julianna Jones, 13, Reagan Mattison,12, and Christina Yepez, 13, of Girl Scout Troop #1484 from St. Louis, Missouri wanted to help a local retirement community be more environmentally friendly. They learned that 20,000 Styrofoam cups—cups which take 500 years to decompose in a landfill—were being used and disposed of every month. The team developed “Eco Bin,” a metal bin containing a non-toxic substance (d-limonene) that dissolves Styrofoam when mixed with water, enabling households and businesses to reduce their waste. In a surprise twist, these innovators discovered that the gooey substance created by the mixture is a strong adhesive. The girls bottled and branded the substance, naming it “GlOo” and marketing it to their local school and other Girl Scout troops for art projects. These creations have earned the girls state accolades and the chance to compete for the Global Innovation Award at FIRST Lego League Nationals. The girls are also now pursuing patents for “Eco Bin” and “GlOo.”

  1. Hari Bhimaraju – Cupertino, California

Hari Bhimaraju, a 12-year old Kennedy Middle School student from Cupertino, California, used a Raspberry Pi and Arduino to design the hardware and software for “The Elementor”, a portable, low-cost teaching tool to help visually impaired students learn the periodic table of elements. When a user enters an element’s symbol with either a regular or a Braille keyboard, pictures and animations show a model for an atom of the element, along with light-up LEDs and sound beeps to describe the positions of the element’s electrons. The system, which is now available for purchase, also uses a simulated Geiger counter to provide information about radioactivity, and a voice generation feature speaks all details out loud. In addition to winning the 1st Place Award in Technology at the 2015 Broadcom MASTERS competition, two schools for the blind have reviewed the tool’s usefulness and are in the process of having their students use it.

  1. Neil Davey – Gaithersburg, Maryland

Neil Davey, 20, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, took on the study of cancer for his International BioGENEius Challenge project. Neil’s goal was to detect cancer early, when there are often more treatment options and better outcomes for cancer patients. His technique uses a combination of drop-based microfluidics and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect circulating tumor cell (CTC) genes, which are shed by tumors and enter the blood stream. In addition to improving early cancer detection, Neil’s solution provides the genomic details of the cancer, giving the treating doctor insights into the patients’ cancer that can enable for more-targeted “precision medicine” treatments.

  1. Yashaswini Makaram – Northborough, MA

Yashaswini Makaram, 17, of Northborough, Massachusetts, created a new cell phone security tool that records the distinctive arm and hand motions people use to lift a cell phone from a table to uniquely identify the cell phone’s owner. To date, the technology correctly identifies a cell phone’s owner 85 percent of the time and differentiates among people with 93 percent accuracy. Yashaswini’s biometric research, which got her recognized as part of the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search, may lead to greater personalization of mobile devices.

5 & 6. Krishna Patel & Isha Shah – Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas, Nevada students Sydney Lin, 13, Krishna Patel, 12, and Isha Shah, 13, overcame the obstacle of losing their original teacher and mentor to compete at the Future City National competition. These Hyde Park Middle School students created a sustainable, waste-free, municipal city, winning Team Kilau Most Sustainable Buildings and City of the Future that Best Incorporates Cultural and Historical Resources.

  1. Sanjan Rane – Prosepct, Kentucky

18-year-old Sanjana Rane, from Prospect, Kentucky, has helped discover how a particular protein could be used to detect and treat renal fibrosis. Her discovery helps to prevent renal fibrosis from developing into end-stage renal disease, an incurable total failure of the kidneys. Sanjana first became interested in pursuing medical research when she read a USA Today study ranking Louisville, her hometown, as having some of the worst air quality in the United States. She began to look into the dangers of air pollution and learned about the chemical acrolein, which is found in both cigarette and industrial smoke and can cause kidney damage. As Sanjana delved into her research, she began to focus on how to shift acrolein’s influence on the kidneys by using a particular protein as a therapeutic target. This novel approach won Sanjana a scholarship at the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. Looking forward in her career, Sanjana is interested in pursuing medicine; in particular, Sanjana would like to practice regenerative medicine to explore how to use stem cells to treat diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, and ALS.

  1. Deepika Kurup – Nashua, New Hampshire

Every summer Deepika Kurup, 18, and her family travel from their home in Nashua, New Hampshire, to visit India. In the United States, Deepika always had the privilege of having unlimited access to potable water, but in India, she saw children drink water that she felt was too dirty to touch. Deepika wanted to find out why these people lacked access to safe water, a substance that’s essential for life. Deepika learned that the world is facing a global water crisis and that, according to the World Health Organization, one-ninth of the global population lacks access to clean water. This unacceptable social injustice compelled Deepika to find a solution to the world’s clean-water problem—a solar-powered technology that uses silver and other materials to rapidly remove bacteria from water. Deepika’s innovation made her a finalist in the 2015 Google Science Fair and a winner of the National Geographic Explorer Award. Deepika hopes to use her creation to provide cleaner drinking water to families in India and around the world.

  1. Anurudh Ganesan – Clarksburg, Maryland

When Anurudh Ganesan, now 16, was an infant, his grandparents walked him 10 miles to a remote clinic in India in order to receive a vaccination. When they arrived, the vaccines were ineffective due to the high temperatures and lack of refrigeration. Although Anurudh was fortunate and ultimately received the vaccination, others are not. Anurudh learned that, according to UNICEF, 1.5 million children die every year as a result of not getting the safe and effective vaccines that they so desperately need. He also discovered that ice packs used to transport vaccines can freeze the vaccines, rendering them ineffective. This inspired Anurudh, who now lives in Clarksburg, Maryland, to explore a better method of refrigerating vaccines immediately prior to use, particularly in developing countries. His creation, VAXXWAGON, can effectively transport vaccines in the last leg of distribution without the use of ice and electricity, saving potentially thousands of lives throughout the world. Anurudh’s project earned him the 2015 Google Science Fair LEGO Education Builder Award.

  1. Bansi Parekh – San Diego, California

Navigating gender identity, sexual orientation, and romantic orientation can be an isolating and difficult journey, particularly for high-school students. To create a more positive and welcoming environment, a group of teen programmers created Spectrum, an Android app that aims to provide a social-media network for the LGBTQIA+ community, especially younger users looking for a safe support system. Receiving recognition as Google Made with Code Mentors to inspire more girls to code, the app was imagined and designed by the team of San Diego, California, teens Siobhan Garry, 17, Mona Fariborzi, 17, Lauren Mori, 17, Bansi Parekh, 17, and McKenna Stamp, 18.

  1. Varun Vallabhaneni – Columbus, Ohio

Team FireArmor is one of the five winners of the 2015 Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge, an honor bestowed upon a team of high-school inventors and entrepreneurs. The competition challenges high-school students to use science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills to develop commercially viable, technology-based products that address real-world challenges. FireArmor is an innovative protective apparel designed to protect firefighters or anyone who faces extreme temperatures. It was created by then Centreville, Virginia, and Gahanna, Ohio team members, Savannah Cofer, 18, Valerie Chen, 18, Matthew Sun, 17, and Varun Vallabhaneni, 17. Unlike any protective apparel on the market today, FireArmor is composed of an inorganic, endothermic fiber that absorbs heat from its environment and keeps the firefighter safe even at dangerously high temperatures. Current firefighter turnout gear rapidly degrades above 300 degrees Celsius and provides less than six seconds of protection in flash fire conditions. In contrast, FireArmor keeps the firefighter safe even above 1000 degrees Celsius and provides up to five minutes of protection in flash fire conditions. The team was inspired to create FireArmor two years ago, when 19 Arizona firefighters were surrounded and killed during a flash fire. After the Arizona tragedy, the team started thinking about whether an endothermic chemical reaction like that used in instant ice packs could be used to offer a dramatic improvement in firefighter apparel. Team FireArmor is currently working on both a patent and a trademark.

  1. Maya Varma – San Jose, California

Maya Varma, a 17-year-old from San Jose, California, was astounded at the price of diagnostic spirometers—the machines used to analyze lung health by having patients blow into them. The devices typically cost hundreds of dollars, so Maya Varma developed a 3D printed version, that costs a mere $35. Maya used her knowledge of 3D printing, electrical engineering, and computer science, along with data of lung capacity and flow rate, to build the device, which can currently diagnose chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and restrictive lung disease with remarkable accuracy. The Electronics Aquarium tubing connects the spirometer to a pressure sensor that converts the pressure change to voltage. An Arduino microcontroller sends the voltage data to an Android app. The Spirometer Varma’s system uses a 3D-printed Lilly pneumotachometer, a spirometer that calculates flow by measuring the pressure change across a mesh when you blow into it. Maya’s (literally) breathtaking invention earned her a slot as a 2016 Intel STS finalist, where her spirometer was selected as one of the top 40 projects in the nation.

13. Rupa Palanki – Mobile County, Alabama

In 2004, as a struggling Mobile County, Alabama, school trying to find its identity in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) world, the W.P. Davidson faculty and students decided to take a leap of faith and participate in the BEST Robotics program. The team had no tools to manufacture a robot, no space to work, and no classes devoted to engineering, and the newly formed robotics team went to the community for donations. In a relatively short period of time, their hard work, success and motivation lead to the creation of the EPIC Program (Engineering Pathways Integrated Curriculum) for their school. Now, in 2016, W.P. Davidson High School is home to the largest K-12 engineering program in the state of Alabama, all students have access to 3D printers, CNC machines, and advanced simulation software and the faculty and students mentor schools throughout the Gulf Coast region and the Black Belt of Alabama, encouraging more students to become excited about science and engineering. W.P. Davidson High School, represented by Jacob Bosarge, 17, Nolan Lenard, 16, and Rupa Palanki, 17, has become one of the best of the BEST in Alabama, winning 1st Place Overall BEST Award in the Jubilee BEST Robotics Competition and 2nd Place Overall BEST Award in the South’s BEST Regional Championship—making W.P. Davidson’s team the highest-ranking team in Alabama.

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