Deepika Kurup: Student Scientist

The Google Science Fair, a global online competition for students from 13 to 18 years old, is now accepting project submissions through May 18th, 2016. I connected with the winner of last year’s National Geographic Explorer Award, one of the competition’s exciting prizes, to talk about college, her inspirations, how her water filtration project has grown, and how other students can get involved in scientific research.

Deepika interned at the National Institute of Health in high school, where she conducted research in neurobiology. Photo by Pradeep Kurup

You’re almost finished with your first year at Harvard. How has it been going?
I really love the environment at Harvard. You might think it would be competitive but students are really looking for how they can help each other succeed, not how they can compete. It’s a very collaborative effort. I can’t believe I’m almost done with my freshman year of college, though. It seems like I was just finishing my freshman year of high school and my first water filtration prototype.

Do people ever recognize you on campus?
I definitely have friends who keep me humble and remind me that I’m not a big deal—which is great. But sometimes I do get recognized at the dining halls or while walking to class. People know me as the “water girl” who was on the Harvard class of 2019 page. I’m just glad to see that the water crisis is gaining recognition.

Who or what inspires you?
Regarding my water purification project, I’m inspired by the fact that there are people in the world without access to a basic human right: clean drinking water.

My classmates are also constantly inspiring me because they all have such passion to solve the problems they care about. People often think young people are apathetic or not capable of working on the massive issues the world is facing, but that has not been my experience.

Tell me about the trip to India that sparked your interest in creating a water purification system.
Every summer, my family and I go to India because my grandparents and cousins live there. I’ve always enjoyed going. It’s a beautiful place— there are palm trees, beaches, and so many sights, sounds, and colors.

But there are also underlying problems like access to clean water. I started to notice those more as I got older. During our visits, my parents would always remind me that we should only drink boiled water or bottled water. At the same time, I saw people who were drinking extremely dirty water on the side of the road. It was the same water they used to wash clothes and bathe in. I was particularly affected to see kids my age drinking from the water on the side of the road. That’s what made me really want to make a difference in the area.

Deepika visits her extended family in Kerala, India every summer. Photo by Pradeep Kurup

Was there a specific moment when you realized science was alive and not just something to memorize from a textbook?
It must have been in the eighth grade when I started looking at into the global water crisis. I did what most people do when they see something they don’t understand. I googled the questions I had, such as “ Why don’t people have access to clean drinking water?” and then, “What can be done to help these people?”

That’s when I realized science could be applied to modern problems today. It helped me make a connection between the scientists you learn about in school who created vaccines in the early 18th century and the researchers who are working right now to solve really exciting problems.

How would you explain your water purification system to an elementary schooler?
My system uses sunlight to remove certain bacteria and organic material, which can be harmful to drink, from water.

How has your project grown and changed since you first started working on it?
When I first started working on this project, I was only able to harness UV radiation, which makes up about 3% of the solar radiation that reaches the Earth. I’ve since incorporated silver nitrate to capture the power of visible light as well.

Do you have plans for distributing and scaling your solution?
I’m currently partnered up with my friend at Harvard, and we’re planning to form a nonprofit organization. This summer we’ll be doing some of the final steps in the scientific research process to create a prototype that’s ready for deployment. Hopefully by next semester, we’ll be working with NGOs to bring the technology where it is most needed.

Deepika began working on her water purification project in her parents’ garage when she was 14. Photo by Pradeep Kurup.

In your TEDx Talk, you mentioned stereotypes about scientists. How have those stereotypes affected you?
When people envision a scientist, they usually think of a man with crazy hair who is working late hours in a lab, alone. In reality, a scientist is just someone who is curious about the world. When I was younger, I didn’t know there was a term for the reason I was asking tons of questions. I just pursued the answers, and I didn’t see a barrier.

As I got older, I realized that all of my questions could be answered through science. At the same time, I began to see that people don’t view scientists as kids who have a lot of questions. I’m really passionate about inspiring people to think of scientists as all different kinds of curious people.

How would you advise other students with scientific research goals to get started?
I would tell them that I really did get started just by googling things. Start following the scientific method. If you think you have a great idea, start observing what’s already being done. Formulate your hypothesis and test your experiments. Reach out to professors in your area who can serve as mentors. It might be discouraging at first if people don’t have space, but reach out to as many people as you can, including people who are directly affected by the issue you’re trying to solve. It’s important to start talking to people and working together early in the process.

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