“I’m still trying to process everything,” says an eager Anika Chebrolu, 14, on CNN, Oct. 19, 2020, when asked how it felt to be America’s Top Young Scientist. She is visibly excited.
At this critical time when more than 210,000 Americans have died during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chebrolu is being credited with identifying a molecule that could help find a cure for the dreaded disease – a good reason to win her the title ‘America’s Top Young Scientist’ as part of 3M’s prestigious Young Scientists Challenge competition for middle schoolers.
Indian-American children, born to relatively new immigrants, have proven their caliber in no small measure in this country. From Spelling Bees, Geography Bees, Math championships, science competitions, to lawyers, technologists, doctors, artists, musicians, comedians, you name it and they have conquered it.
So, it is no surprise that out of the top ten Finalists listed by 3M, 7 are Indian-American. And each of their research subjects is of high interest, and, for the well-being of this country which has thrived mainly because of the immigrants who use the privileges and opportunities it affords, to excel in their fields, no matter their age.
This year’s competition was conducted virtually over several months.
Anika, a student of Nelson Middle School in Frisco, used in-silico methodology for drug discovery to find a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to find a cure for the coronavirus, a press release from 3M and Discovery Education said.
Chebrolu walked away with the $25,000 grand prize as the winner of the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge, the nation’s premier middle school science competition, which identified the Top Ten named in the prestigious competition.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide and was declared a worldwide pandemic and public health emergency earlier this year. With the virus continuing to spread everywhere, there is an urgent need to find an effective anti-coronavirus drug.
As Chebrolu explained on CNN, and detailed in the press release, the molecule she identified, “would potentially stop the virus entry into the cell, creating a viable drug target,” because of its ability to bind and inhibit the viral protein.
In her research, Chebrolu screened millions of small molecules for drug-likeness properties, ADMET properties, and binding affinities against the spike protein using numerous software tools. (ADMET stands for Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism, Excretion and Toxicity)
The one molecule with the best pharmacological and biological activity towards the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was chosen as the lead molecule that can be a potential drug for the effective treatment of COVID-19, the press release said.
Anika says she was driven by the sheer ‘scope’ of the pandemic. “You always have this constant fear – who’s going to get affected by this coronavirus next,” she said.
Why she got into science is also important. “My Grandpa, when I was younger, always pushed me toward science. He was a chemistry professor. He used to always tell me- ‘Learn the periodic table of the elements. Learn all these things about science,” she recalled on CNN. “And over time, I grew to love it.”
In her 3M Video Challenge entry, Chebrolu says she has always “been amazed by science experiments” and was drawn to finding effective cures for influenza after a severe bout of the infection in 2019.
For the 3M challenge, she had to work with an enormous data base of 698 million compounds she told CNN! So naturally, Anika’s favorite invention of the last 100 years is the Internet, “because it allows us to explore so much with just a few clicks.” She can do her research from anywhere at any time. “I am amazed at how vast and profound it is and cannot imagine a world without the internet,” she says. “Never stop asking questions,” is her motto. And predictably, this youngster sees herself as a medical researcher and professor in another 15 years.
Her father Dr. Srivasa Bhushan Chebrolu, a nephrologist who graduated from Osmania Medical College in Hyderabad, and is associated with several hospitals in the greater Frisco area, could not be reached following requests for interviews.
Chebrolu was also selected as the recipient of the competition’s Improving Lives Award; the competition’s public voting process recognizes one project from the top ten that has the potential to change the most lives. Chebrolu was selected through an online public vote from September 28 – October 9, 2020.
The virtual event was held October 12-13, 2020. Each finalist – aged 12-14 – was evaluated on a series of challenges and the presentation of their completed innovation.
Over the past few months, each 3M Young Scientist Challenge finalists worked one-on-one with a 3M scientist who played the role of mentor to transform their idea from concept to physical prototype.
Chebrolu was paired with Mahfuza Ali, PhD, a 3M corporate scientist in the materials resource division and a recent Carlton Society inductee.
Apart from the $25,000 cash prize, and the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist,” Chebrolu also gets a special destination trip.
The second and third place winners each received a $1,000 prize and a special destination trip. This year’s winner, two runners up, and their mentors also as is traditionally done, got to ring the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange, only this year, they did it virtually on October 15 at 4:00 p.m. EST.
Chebrolu is not just a scientist. She is an accomplished Indian classical dancer, and her artistic skills are to be envied.
“I see myself as a person who aspires to be a lot of things,” she said on CNN.
Six Other Indian-American Finalists in the Top Ten America’s Young Scientists
Six out of the remaining Finalists are also Indian American teens, making it to the Top Ten in the country, all of them younger than Anika.
In third place among the top ten, was Indian American teen, Laasya Acharya, 12, a seventh-grader at Mason Middle School in Mason City School District from Mason, Ohio. Laasya used a neural network to detect crop diseases through image analysis.
Rithvik Ijju,13, from Englewood, Colo., an eighth-grader at Challenge School in the Cherry Creek School District 5; His project was on “Neuroplasticity: Enabling Stroke Patients to Repair Motor Skills by Imitating Motion Between Hands”
Ekansh Mittal, 13, from Beaverton, Ore., an eighth-grader at Meadow Park Middle School in the Beaverton School District; He developed a microfluidic device that mimics conditions of the gut microbiome to help test the relationship between bacteria and cancer, as well as new treatments against the disease-causing microorganisms and cancer cells.
Harsha Pillarisetti, 13, from San Ramon, Calif., an eighth-grader at Windemere Ranch Middle School in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District; Harsh identified an alternate, low-cost approach to reducing indoor air pollution using leaf-like structures inside the home.
Samhita Pokkunuri, 12, from Old Bridge, N.J., a seventh-grader at Carl Sandburg Middle School in the Old Bridge Township Public School District; She designed and programmed multiple robots to mimic swarm intelligence to be used to accomplish complex tasks and collect data and information in the aid of healthcare, agriculture, construction, security and military operations.
And Samvrit Rao, 12, from Ashburn, Va., a seventh-grader at Stone Hill Middle School in the Loudoun County Public School District. Samvrit developed BOREAS, an affordable telemedicine-based solution that accurately captures and relays breath sounds along with symptomatic data to physicians with use of a unified hardware-software app solution.