Editorial Feature

Who Are The Young Scientists of the Future?

From banana skins to safe socks: Google Science Fair winners share their wisdom

The general consensus for solving the big problems of the world is that in theory it will make the world a better place for the next generation. However in recent years, it seems the younger generation can’t wait for the adults to slope off and retire and instead are chomping at the bit to show us how it’s done. Enter the next generation of young scientists and inventors, who are working alongside the current generation and making waves in the community.
A good idea can come from anyone, anywhere and this ethos has been adopted by the Google Science Fair. Every year it invites 13-18 year olds to share their best ideas in the realms of science, technology, engineering, and maths. Below are some of the previous winners of the prestigious prize to talk about life after the fair and the work they’re embarking on in their late teens and early 20s. They also share what got them interested in science in the first place and some nuggets of advice.

Elif Bilgin

At 16 years of age, Elif Bilgin, originally from Istanbul, Turkey, won the 2013 Google Science Fair for her project “Can we make plastic from banana skins?” Her entry saw her invent a method to make bioplastic using banana peels to replace traditional petroleum-based plastic. Since then, Elif has been attending college, double majoring in Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering at John Hopkins University. She’s also had placements at various companies including Virgin Galactic (as an Intern Astronaut Trainer no less!) and at Oracle as an intern Software Developer.

I started to read at age four so my parents bought me many science books to answer my relentless questions about everything around me. There is a lot to learn out there, there’s more information than is possible to get through. So the earlier you get started in science, the more time you have to maximize the amount of knowledge you reach.

I still try to hold on to the“nothing is impossible” idea that we have when we’re little kids. It allows me to dream big and come up with innovative solutions to problems I want to attack. Currently, I’m working on using deep learning models to assess the skill level of a surgeon using the Da Vinci surgical robot system. This is an important project for me as it has the potential to revolutionize the system for training surgeons. I believe that over time, great strides will be achieved in artificial intelligence and AI will be applied to an even wider spectrum of fields than it is today. I am most excited about the potential thatAI has for the fields of medicine and healthcare.

The most important advice I would give to aspiring scientists would be to have a little notebook where you write down scientific problems you identify in your daily life, and any ideas you have to solve them. These may not be the most ground-breaking ideas, but it will be a nice exercise and good practice!

Elif Bilgin 

Kenneth Shinozuka

American scientist and inventor Kenneth Shinozuka was just 15 when he became the 2014 winner of the Google Science Fair for his age range. His project focused on improving the safety of Alzheimer’s patients and it led him to create the SafeWander® Sock Sensor, which alerts others when patients wander in the night. Since taking part in the fair, Kenneth has updated his invention to make it more user-friendly and accessible for Alzheimer’s patients. He began selling it on his website and has reached thousands of patients and caregivers around the world.

I grew up in a three-generation household so I was routinely exposed to the struggles that my grandparents experienced due to their age. My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer's for over 12 years, so I witnessed the obstacles that my family encountered as we cared for him at home. Additionally, both of my parents were civil engineering professors, and I often accompanied them to their labs. Their work inspired me to use sensors to help the elderly.

I'm very intellectually curious; I'm interested in integrating ideas from a wide variety of subjects – neuroscience, physics, psychology, medicine, psychedelics, philosophy, spirituality, and art – to understand consciousness.

In the fall of 2016, I enrolled in Harvard College. I'm currently a junior studying neuroscience. For the past year and a half, I've been conducting research at the Genetics and Aging Research Unit in the Harvard Medical School, where I'm working with leading professors on the hypothesis that pathogenic infections are responsible for Alzheimer's disease. I'm also co-founding an undergraduate club at Harvard to explore consciousness from an interdisciplinary perspective.

While I have no idea how the scientific landscape is going to change in the coming years. I hope that we become less attached to the idea that science can explain everything in the universe. As one of my professors once said: "No matter what models of the natural world we could ever possibly devise scientifically, there will always remain the question about what actually exists, whether it even really exists at all in any physical sense, whether laws themselves as mathematical entities are the truly fundamental things, why (presuming that physical stuff does exist) there should be things that exist that exhibit patterns corresponding to apparent laws of physics, etc."

I think it's important that research is not only scientifically rigorous but also philosophically motivated. What framework do you have for understanding the world? What do you believe is real? What is fundamental? Why is there so much order in the universe? If you're a young scientist, I would encourage you to tackle these questions before committing yourself to a particular research path. I was drawn to the study of consciousness because I thought that it would serve as a great foundation for exploring the parallels that I saw between Buddhist philosophy and contemporary science.

Kenneth Shinozuka with his Grandpa

Mihir Garimella

Mihir Garimella became the 13-14 age category winner of the very first Computer Science award at the Google Science Fair in 2015. His project explored the idea of the fruit fly’s simple but effective escape behavior and the need for drones to be responsive to changes in their environments by using robotics, algorithms, and sensors. After the fair Mihir extended the project to build out other biologically-inspired hardware and software components. He’s also worked at various tech startups that create robotics for NASA and the Air Force, while also starting college at Stanford in California, where he’s studying Computer Science.

I’ve always been passionate about science. When I was young, I used to take things apart to figure out how they worked and think about how I could improve them. I loved building things and I loved to ask questions. I quickly saw that science was a way to find answers.

Science is a really powerful tool to make an impact: learning about how the world works enables us to build new things to make it better. While there’s totally a place for fundamental research, I would love to see more scientists actively push to get their work out of the lab and into the hands of people who could benefit from it. It’s a shame that, too often, research that could be the first step towards a solution to a massive global problem – deadly disease, food shortages, the energy crisis – never actually makes it out into the field. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for scientists, or people working closely with them, to change this.

Starting in science at a young age has definitely shaped how I approach and solve problems. Thinking about the world as something to be experimented with and made better – rather than something we’re stuck with – is how we can make the world better. Learning how to be curious and experiment at a young age has gotten me into this mode of constantly wondering about how things work and looking for ways to make them better.I think this ability to find problems and “dig into” them in a methodical, constructive manner has helped me immensely.

The cool thing about being inexperienced is that you’re not grounded in the “conventional wisdom” of how things are typically done in a field, so it’s a lot easier to come up with totally new ideas, to see inspiration in the most unexpected places, and to draw connections between totally disparate fields. Of course, a lot of these ideas won’t make much sense, but every once in a while, you just might come up with something really clever.

I’m currently interested in computer vision, which involves building algorithms for computers to understand visual data. This is important because it’s one of the key building blocks in building software that can actually touch the world.Software is useless in a vacuum, so allowing computers to “see” and actually understand what they’re seeing is crucial to building technology that can interact with and perform useful tasks in the world.

Mihir Garimella
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