For many high school seniors, the month of March is synonymous with fun events like senior prom and the last spring break of their high school career. But for 18-year-old Ruchi Pandya — a senior at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California — March was symbolic for a different reason.
On March 22-23, Pandya visited the White House for a science fair that was hosted by President Obama himself. The fair featured different projects from student teams across the nation that entered and won various competitions.
“The White House selected me to present [my project] there,” Pandya explained. “There were 100 students and in total, there were 34 projects that were exhibited. The president visited 13 or 14.”
“Initially, I was a little nervous, but I think the experience was so exciting that I was just taking it all in,” she added.
Using small carbon nanofibers, Pandya created a nanotechnology-based biosensor for cardiac health diagnostics. In plain English, this square, 1-centimenter device could eventually save lives by providing an up to 72-hour warning of an impending heart attack.
“The device uses a single drop of blood to detect certain protein concentrations that are indicators for cardiac arrest,” Pandya said. “Certain protein concentrations will spike in the bloodstream before a cardiac arrest occurs. The device I developed can actually detect quantities of these proteins in a person’s bloodstream.”
Pandya has been intrigued by nanotechnology since her sophomore year of high school. At that time, she did an internship at Stanford University and developed a nanotechnology-based water purification filter.
“[It was then that] I realized I was really interested in nano,” Pandya said. “I was fascinated that materials that are so small can have a huge impact.”
Pandya officially started her nanotech-based biosensor project in December 2013. This project became her unofficial extracurricular activity — besides going to school, she would log long hours in the lab to test and perfect her project.
“It wasn’t for school; I’m just interested in research,” Pandya said. “There’s so much to learn and discover. I’m fascinated by what I can learn by doing research in a lab setting.”
Pandya entered her project in several competitions, the biggest one being the prestigious Siemens Competition that was held at the California Institute of Technology early last November.
“The Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology is the nation’s premier technical research competition,” Pandya explained. “I was the fourth place national finalist, out of around 1,800 entrants.”
Following the regional level of the Siemens Competition at Caltech, Pandya traveled to Washington, D.C., for the national finals. It’s sufficient to say the 800-plus hours Pandya spent working on her project definitely paid off. She acknowledges that there were challenges she encountered while developing her nanotech-based biosensor, but that was just all part of the learning process.
“With science, that [running into challenges] is just the nature of the game,” she said. “Sometimes, your experiments don’t work and you just have to try different permutations and combinations to make them work. That was challenging, but that’s always what makes it so interesting and fun. You never know what you’re going to find.”
Currently, Pandya is still working on fine-tuning her device and making it ready for her next big event — the Intel ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair) — on May 10-15 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The competition includes 1,800 participants from more than 70 countries.
Besides that, though, the 18-year-old is still enjoying her last few months as a high schooler, which involves typical teen activities like going to the movies with her friends. She also has yet to make a decision regarding colleges and where she’ll be attending this fall.
“I’m thinking about majoring in material science and engineering,” Pandya said. “Since that’s what I’ve been working in, I’m trying to pursue that more, and I hope to eventually work as a technology entrepreneur.”
Wherever she ends up, though, Pandya knows that her experience presenting her project at the White House — and getting to meet the president — is something she’ll always remember.
“It was pretty cool to see the passion for science in all of the presenters there,” she said. “There were people of all ages, ranging from a Girl Scout troop — they were like 6 ½ years old — to high school seniors like me, who are 18 and 19 years old. Everyone was interested in science and research and what their work can do for the world. That was really inspiring and a wonderful atmosphere to be in.”