Suruchi Gupta

Lifestyle

Science for Love

by on Apr.07, 2012, under Experiences, Miscellaneous

The following article was written way back in July, 2011, when the Google Science Fair finalists were announced by the organisers. The subject of the article below – how six Indian-American students shine out and make space for themselves in top 15 from a list of 7500 entries – had interested me enough to seek time and cooperation from these young students to answer my questions. However, due to unavoidable reasons, I could not get it published back then. But I finally publish it here. Hope you too enjoy reading about these brave teens and send them your best wishes.

 PS: The article was written before the finale of the contest was held. At the contest, as wonderfully as it could be, two of these six teens emerged in the top three slots – Shree Bose and Naomi Shah. Congratulations to them all! Cheers!  

Vighnesh is a passionate musician

Having an ear for music is just not enough. Apart from singing and composing it, one needs to transcribe musical notes manually onto a computer or paper. For 17-year-old Vighnesh Leonardo Shiv, a passionate musician and science lover – as reflected even in his name given to him by his musician and artist mother and scientist father: Vighnesh (meaning ‘patron of arts and sciences’), Leonardo (after polymath Leonardo d Vinci, his ‘idol’) – finding an answer for ‘automatic transcription of music’ has been a necessity.

“I used to lead a cover band at school. One of my jobs was to transcribe sheet music for the rest of the band as I was the only member who could learn a piece of music by ear. The tedium of this job persuaded me to search online for an automatic solution. Finding none, I took the challenge to solve the problem myself, at which, attempts are being made for last 35 years” says Vighnesh. Ironically, he shares, his quest for an answer has taken away the time to compose and play music as frequently as he used to.

Vighesh is one of few of first generation American-Indian teenagers we came across, who are trying to find answers to problems around them with help of their passion for science.

“When I saw many of my family members suffering from lung disorders – my grandfather died of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in India, my dad and brother have chronic allergies, and another family member has asthma – I began to wonder why their symptoms persisted year-round instead of just during allergy season. By a ‘home bound’ research I found that air quality was a major problem,” recollects Naomi Shah of the time when she was about 11-years-old and first got into preliminary testing air quality. 16-year-old Naomi is today working on an independent project on healthy indoor-air for healthy lungs.

Naomi started her scientific research starting at her home

“The novel mathematical model I have developed can be used by both medical practitioners and environmental specialists in the field, which I think is very important because these are the people who make decisions regarding asthma patients’ health and regulations for buildings, residents, and corporations, respectively,” she says about her project, recognized as the best in her age-group category at the recently concluded Google Science Fair.

Today, with developments like Naomi developing dust and chemical pollutants allergies herself, while her father being diagnosed with cancer, her responsibility and resolve can only strengthen.

“I wanted to put together a study about this because I saw a gap in public understanding of this topic and wanted to educate people about the importance of air quality in everyday life,” she adds.

Similarly for 17-year old Shree Bose, who has her parental roots in West Bengal, India, and has been born and brought up in Fort Worth, Texas, the calling to take up study of medicine came when in 2008 she experienced the jubilation of becoming a Society for Science and Public’s Middle School Program finalist and got a minor planet “25178 Shree Bose” named after her, alongside suffering a personal loss. “That summer, my grandfather passed away from lung cancer, and I became even surer that I wanted to go into medicine, this time with a focus in cancer research,” says Shree.

Shree already has a minor planet named after herself!

But, not before a hiccup. Shree, shares that she has been winning state and regional level science fair competitions from her childhood. “But my first medical project under Dr. Alakananda Basu (of University of North Texas Health Science Center) I did not win at the state level. That left me thinking, no, it’s not worth it, I will not do any more medical projects ever… it was so discouraging. But then, I thought I was not ready to give it up…” shares Shree. And then, she went back to work on the cancer project with Dr. Basu.

Shree is overwhelmed with idea of being part of the development of ovarian chemotherapy technique. “To me, being a 16 year old working on graduate level research is pretty much the coolest part of this entire experience. But I think, for this project specifically, the most amazing part to me was the real world aspect. When I explain a little bit of my research, so many people tell me about their friends or relatives who have suffered from ovarian cancer. Just knowing that the work I’m doing right now might play a role in fighting back against a disease that has affected so many is really an incredible feeling,” says Shree of the project where she is trying to establish the link between an energy protein of the cell called AMP kinase and the development of cancer resistance to a particular drug called cisplatin.

While these young minds are part of an industrialised world, 16-year old Harine Ravichandran in India is working on a science project that took birth as she witnessed lack of basic necessities, like adequate electricity, added to voltage sags. “The idea for this project came when I was 13 and lived in Chidambaram, India, with my grandparents. There was a lot of suffering there (due to voltage sags in electricity supply). Farmers could not irrigate the field by using motor… The children could not study because lights were so low, and so on,” explains Harine as the reason behind her project on conditioning the electricity lines to control voltage sags.

Spirit to take electricity to Indian vilages drove Harine to research

Having moved to the metropolitan city of Hyderabad, India, now, Harine’s project has already passed the first of three levels of industry-implementation, with assistance by her electrical-engineer mother.

Harine had to tackle dissuading reactions while she tried to develop her project. “The biggest challenge I faced has been real time implementation of the project since schools in India do not encourage experimentation or working outside the curriculum. In India, studying is not about understanding a concept, but mugging up and writing exams, which I find to be a waste of time,” says Harine.

Another teenager who has been part of ‘scientific projects’ since age of four and making interesting pieces ranging from articulated robotic spiders to science Olympiad battlebods, is 15-year-old Anand Srinivasan.  While at kindergarten, he ‘investigated’ Newton’s Third Law by means of a balloon-propelled toy car. But now, he is developing a project on thought-manipulating prosthetic limbs.

“Last summer, I got interested in the kinematics of the human body, specifically, the physiology of human limbs… Since machines can, nowadays, convincingly replicate a human limb, my research therefore started with this question: how can one interface man and machine?” says Anand about his project’s seed thought. He goes on to add, “Extracting signals from the brain and ‘translating’ them using various mathematical filters was, at this point, my chosen method of thought-manipulating a prosthetic limb.”

Anand is sure he can find the connect between brains of man and machine

Sharing the reason behind his love for science, Anand shares, “Apart from the science lab experiments (mentioned above), another extremely influential event took place when I went with my family as a Cub Scout to the Huntsville Space Center in Alabama. Though the most popular attraction there was the G-force chamber, what fascinated me was the internals of the rockets and shuttles hanging overhead. At the time, it was mind-boggling to me that a mess of comically-shaped metal pieces and a rats’ nest of wires could carry man into space… I also enjoyed crafting wooden cars for the annual Pinewood Derby during my time in Cub Scouts. All of these experiences not only gave me the technical skills I heavily employ today, but also the mindset and determination necessary to bring something to life.”

Nimal Subramanian from Southern California, all of 14, is also among those who are trying to find a cure to cancer. His love for science combined with dislike for the ‘yellowness’ of Indian spices has got him working on the project of ‘Cancer Busters’ made from Indian spices, which won the People’s Choice Award at the Google Fair recently. “Although I like several Indian dishes including briyani, kurma, okra curry and masala dosa, which have several Indian spices, I often did not like several other foods prepared by my relatives, as they all looked yellow (due to turmeric’s presence)… My aunt made turmeric milk with pepper and sugar whenever I had a sore throat and my parents (from Chennai, India) often raved about my grandma’s ginger tea,” shares Nimal.

Nimal got into the idea of researching on the medicinal values of Indian spices and home-remedies as his parents (mother a professor at California State Long Beach and father scientist at University of California) detailed to him the benefits of Indian spices.

Indian spices, apart from taste, hold the key to cancer according to Nimal

“Whenever I do my projects, I think about how the world can benefit from them. For this project in particular, I thought about India quite often because my idea to use spices came from home remedies practiced in India – where I’ve been four times so far in my life,” says Nimal.

Beyond The Labs, On Common Grounds:

Is there anything which binds them all together, apart from their love of science, participation at first Google Science Fair among the top 15 of the 7500 adolescents participating, this year, and the India connect? “While interacting with the other finalists, I found there is so much common among us! Music is a common factor for almost all of us I think. We all play some or the other instrument! I play the piano and flute, while many others play violin or keyboard or something else! Most of us are into swimming too!” informs Shree excitedly, who won the grand prize for the best project at the Fair.

Music for one and all

An interaction with these adolescents throws up that it is not just laboratories and experiments that these teens indulge in. Shree is the editor-in-chief of her school’s newspaper, Naomi volunteers at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry since she was a student of eighth grade alongside juggling her participation at the Student Body Leadership, National Honor Society and Varsity Swim Team. Harine volunteers for the AID India and thinks leisure activities like playing keyboard and skateboarding keep her as chilled out as any other teenager! Nimal too is trained in viola and piano – which he plays for its pleasure.

Vighnesh, who is excited next about presenting his research at University of Padova (established in 1222), the second oldest university in Europe, has a home studio where he is working on his music album even as he struggles to take out time to play his ensemble of guitar, piano, bass and drums (among other instruments!) apart from singing. “I enjoy watching literature-based plays and playing sports too. At home, I play table tennis and pool with my friends and parents, and I play ultimate frisbee at school. I also hold a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. While I’m sure this would affect many students performing research, it really hasn’t affected me,” adds Vighnesh.

Shying from any tags of being ‘exceptionally talented’ or ‘gifted’ some of these teens feel they are part of the ‘glocal’ world. For example, Anand believes that to be able to collaborate and research on Internet is one major aspect of being ‘one with the world’. “There are, of course, arguments that those who devote their time purely to research and experimentation will never get outside and look at the world; this is not true. A large part of science is collaboration, and I believe that the Internet, one of my prime sources of research and investigation, is nothing short of the world’s largest collaboration,” he says. This youngster also has deep interests in violin and karate when he is not on doing research work on Internet.

When I asked these students of the best and worst things about school, all replied with two common factors: first, they are straight-A students, and second, they enjoy their school (except Harine) as they enjoy their extra-curricular activities and subjects a lot to think of skipping even a single day of school! Nothing which bugs them then? To this, Shree replies, “I would have to say, that, is the homework. So much work outside of the class curriculum severely cuts into my time… which I would use for sleeping, if I had it.”

However, these students do have their fare share of tough choices and moments. For Vighnesh, the biggest challenge he faced, came from a different quarter than the lab work. “I decided to go vegan when I was in the eighth grade (aged 13), after I picked up A Teen’s Guide to going Vegetarian by Judy Krizmanic, for a casual read over a Spring break. For several days after reading the book, I waged an internal war as to whether to convert to veganism, and if I could enjoy life without cheese pizza, ice-creams and buttery baked goods!” says Vighnesh, a vegan, like popular celebrities Bryan Adams, Mike Tyson and PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk.

India Connects?

It is natural that there are more thoughts on India, as felt by Harine’s Indian-American peers. “To me, India is where my uncles and aunts and grandmothers and all my family live. It’s where I have a family I can track back for generations with an incredibly rich history I don’t have here in the United States. The realization of the opportunities – beginning with small things like emailing – which my parents did not have in India, but I do in America, makes me work that much harder,” says Shree.

For these whiz kids, who have a love affair with science from their earliest memories, one task perhaps remains unachievable as of now: sleeping enough number of hours in a day. We’ll have to wait and see if someone comes up with a research on how to increase the number of hours in a day! As they say, nothing’s impossible!

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