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This Rock Star Teen Scientist Designed a Sustainable Air Filter

Teen scientist Naomi Shah is making it a whole lot easier for allergy sufferers to breathe.

A couple years ago, someone told me that "scientists can be rock stars too." Although these words resonated with me, a March phone call from Intel informing me that I was one of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search caught me completely off-guard. When that call happened, my life stopped for a moment. (In reality, I actually scrambled to find a pencil and paper to write down the information I was getting over the phone, so technically my life didn't stop, but still.) Becoming an Intel Science Talent Search finalist was something I had been looking forward to since middle school when a judge at a science fair explained what it was. The thought of presenting my research to well-established judges and sharing it with 40 accomplished high school students was exciting, and I'm glad I never gave up on this goal.

My journey in science research started in sixth grade, when I noticed both my dad and brother suffering from chronic allergy symptoms that persisted well past the pollen season. I knew there had to be something exacerbating these symptoms, but I didn't know exactly what it was. When my sixth-grade teacher marched us to the library to work on researching topics for our first science fair, I started out with the generic prompts like "inclined planes" and "hovercrafts." But, 10 minutes later, I typed in "causes of allergies," just out of curiosity. I ended up at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site, and for the past six and a half years, that link has been in my "most visited" list of websites as I've continued and deepened my research. This was the beginning of my first project, which was about how air filters impact pollutants in homes.

Since then, my research has grown substantially. Fueled by a personal connection to lung disorders in my family, I immersed myself into my research. In the past few years, I have independently tested the air quality and lung health of more than 100 human test subjects to statistically analyze the correlation between indoor air pollution and human lung health. I created a unique mathematical model that predicts a person's lung health based on both pathophysiological and environmental factors.

Most recently, I developed a novel, sustainable and cost-effective biofilter to remove chemical pollutants from indoor air streams in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system of buildings. My research is like a part-time job, but I enjoy every moment of it because I am constantly working toward answering the questions that I want answers to and am curious about.

I'm often asked what it’s like to be a girl in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This is definitely an important topic to address because today we are seeing a shifting tide as more women and girls are entering predominantly male-dominated fields. In my school's computer science and technology classes, there are consistently only two or three girls in classes of 40 or 50. We hear about these statistics every day, but the only way to solve this problem is to get more girls interested in STEM.

To do this, I worked with my computer science teacher to start a camp at my school called Females Advancing Computing and Technology (FACT), which aims to introduce middle school girls to courses offered at the high school level in STEM fields so that young girls are more likely to forecast for STEM classes when they enter high school. The first FACT camp was a success and I'm hoping that I can package this camp and roll it out in other schools in my district and even nationally to start balancing out these statistics.

My short-term plans also involve continuing work on my independent research and attending Stanford University, where I hope to explore more environmental engineering research. I want to further my biofilter research, which is a solution that I am currently working on to metabolically remove Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from indoor air streams. My long-term goals involve working at the boundary between engineering and environmental research, as well as the subsequent social implications that follow, such as national regulatory policy.

I believe that science research should be encouraged and pursued in our education system and that equal emphasis should be placed on these endeavors, in terms of recognition and funding, in addition to athletics and other activities. Science and technology are the key to innovation for future generations, and in order to maintain a competitive edge, students should be encouraged to explore their passions and delve into fields that they are interested in and can contribute to at a younger age.

Click here to add encouraging the students in your life to pursue science research to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Naomi Shah, 18, was a finalist in both the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search and the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She presented her research on indoor air contamination.

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