These 17-Year-Olds Will Make You Question Your Life Choices

Photo: Courtesy of Kriti Lall.
As part of the Intel Science Talent Search, 40 student finalists from across the country were given a chance to show off their research and possibly win some excellent prizes to help keep it going. Here are just a few of those human rays of light leading science and technological innovation today — plus their words of wisdom for us mere mortals. Changing the world isn't easy, but we're glad these gals are up to the challenge. 

Kriti Lall, 17, of Fremont, CA, was inspired to look into water treatment after volunteering in a village in India. She learned that arsenic poisoning from drinking water is a huge problem — nearly 137 million people in 70 countries suffer from it, according to a 2007 study.

To combat this, she genetically engineered bacteria so that they get rid of the arsenic in water through a technique called "bioremediation." (More precisely, these bacteria convert arsenic into a different form that's much easier to remove from water.) Lall also built a bioreactor — that only cost $8 — using commonly found materials such as pipes and gravel. The setup is easy to implement and it's efficient: It can remove arsenic from water at a rate of four gallons per hour.

Her Advice To Us: "Our school's motto is 'Women learning, women leading'  and that's really emphasized throughout everything we do," Lall says. "We are all treated as responsible adults who have full capabilities regardless of gender... It just becomes second nature to us. Like, if someone asks, 'Can you do this?' Yeah, of course we can." 

"Stereotypes exist," she continues, "but they shouldn't define you or your capabilities in any way. What you can do is really only defined by you; it's not defined by anyone else. You set your own limits."
Photo: Courtesy of Emily Ashkin.
Emily Ashkin, 17, of Matthews, NC, first started looking into oncology research at age 11, just after her mother was diagnosed with skin cancer. Over the next few years, she learned that although immunotherapy can be successful in using the body's own immune system to fight off cancer cells, it doesn't work for everyone — because those cancer cells are able to hide themselves. So, Ashkin's work has focused on finding a way to lift those cells' masks. 

She's already had a lot of success: When one protein, TOP1, is blocked, the cell masks come off — rendering the cancer cells easier for the system to recognize. Hopefully, by combining this with other treatments, it will make immunotherapy work for a wider range of patients.

Her Advice To Us: "It's so easy to see all these male scientists making such an impact in their field, and we forget about the women," Ashkin says. "But, I've had a unique experience [in that] one of the first labs I worked in was an all-female lab. It taught me that women can make a difference. We can easily prove ourselves to be just as intelligent — just as impactful as men."

Ashkin's tip for women is "to want it. If you're the only woman in the room, show your pride... No matter what, you're still able to make a difference." 
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Photo: Courtesy of Anvita Gupta.

Anvita Gupta, 17, of Scottsdale, AZ, started a computer science club for middle schoolers after watching three quarters of the girls in her AP computer science class drop out — even though they had better grades than the boys.

Her own early experiences in robotics inspired her to get other girls hooked: "I liked seeing how something I wrote on the computer could translate into a motion of this machine," she says. "I thought if we could introduce girls to experiences like that from a younger age, maybe we can get those girls invested in the field. Once that happens, I think they're much less likely to leave." 

Now, the girls in that class are working on making their own apps, including one that helps people learn CPR; it tells you when you're applying the right amount of pressure. "To see the change in their attitudes has been really nice," Gupta says. "They came in to class saying 'Oh, I'm not a technical person,' but now they're making all these things that I think a lot of even the most technical people couldn't do." 

Gupta's own work focuses on using computer science to direct the discovery of new medical therapies for illnesses such as cancer, Ebola, and tuberculosis. For instance, she's been working on ways to find the most influential proteins in pancreatic cancer.

Her Advice To Us: "Stick with it. Everyone has trouble learning these new technologies. You're at the same place as everyone else, so just stick with it and believe in yourself." 
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