Magazine

Mind game

These brainiacs use science and tech to take small steps and giant leaps for mankind

 

"I'm giving people a voice"
Neeti Kailas, 29
Co-founder, Sohum

She made a nifty gizmo: “Three years ago, we discovered that if hearing impairment is detected early – within the first year, when the brain’s regenerative capacity is high – then speech impairment can be prevented with the right rehabilitation,” says the alumnus of the Art Center College of Design, California. Bengaluru-based Kailas and her partner Nitin Sisodia invented Sohum, a deceptively simple apparatus comprising a headband connected to a portable main unit, which maps the brain’s electrical responses, and the results can be read immediately on any tablet or mobile phone. The prototype won her the Rolex Award for Enterprise this year and a cash prize of 50,000 Swiss francs.

She made a long checklist, and ticked all the boxes: “We had to ensure that the device works even if the baby is awake, because sedation is a huge risk in India,” she says. It also had to circumvent ambient and electromagnetic noise generated by other hospital machines. The other challenges were developing inexpensive yet effective electrodes to prevent unhygienic reuse, and a simple interface, which didn’t require specialised healthcare workers to operate it. 

She’s planning for the future: “Almost 90 per cent of congenital hearing loss cases can be found in developing countries because of birth trauma, inter familial marriage and infections,” Kailas says. But unlike in developed countries, it’s not mandatory to screen for it as part of post-natal care. In 2016, she hopes to launch the product in the market at one-fifth of the current cost of similar products, which hovers at $10,000. “Our goal is to find partners around the country, so that the 26 million children born each year in India are tested at birth.”

 

"I grow bones in a lab"
Nina Tandon, 34
CEO and Co-founder, EpiBone

She’s Dr Frankenstein: As a student of electrical engineering, Nina Tandon discovered the perfect laboratory to test the concepts she was learning – the human body. After completing her bachelor’s degree, Tandon switched streams and opted for a master’s in bioelectrical engineering from MIT, and later a PhD in biomedical engineering from Columbia University. Tandon focused her thesis on cardiac tissue engineering, in the process earning herself the nickname Dr Frankenstein. “What I was doing with electrical signals and cells was similar to him – using electricity to give life to the lifeless.”

She mends broken bones: Tandon co-founded EpiBone in New York, a company that aims to help patients with skeletal reconstruction using stem cells from their body. “EpiBone will allow the 9,00,000 US patients undergoing bone-related surgeries each year to grow their own bones,” says Tandon.

She wants to build a new world: Though the bone-growing procedure is currently under testing, Tandon is exploring the infinite scope of tissue engineering and its use in various fields in her book Super Cells: Building With Biology (TED Books). She’s also designing a course for non-engineers to help them learn what they can grow from cells. “Imagine living condominium complexes and bacteria-made couture.” 

 

"I study insect ears"
Natasha Mhatre, 35
Research Collaborator, University of Bristol

She isn’t creeped out by crawlers: Mhatre’s average day at the university’s School of Biological Sciences involves studying how the auditory systems in insects, specifically crickets and locusts, have evolved to filter irrelevant information from the noisy natural world – and the mechanisms that allow this filtering. Her next project researches “how microscopic algae swimming in sync might be related to hearing in organisms that came later in the evolution chain.”

She started young: Her love for the animal kingdom was nurtured at a young age when her father, a wildlife enthusiast, encouraged her to travel with Pune-based Friends of Animals. Stints at the life sciences department in St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru (where she attended a lecture on the neurobiology of sound localisation in crickets), made her want to pursue a PhD in insect auditory systems.

She’s a scientist and an artist: Mhatre was frustrated by how “intensely and solely theoretical” her work had become during her master’s. “Occasionally, I wanted to see something, hold something, not just push numbers and ideas around in my head.” That was when she arrived at using graphic art, photography and short stories to disseminate scientific understanding. So far, she’s described the biology of animals in a collection of short stories and taken exquisite pictures of insects and wildlife accompanied by scientific-yet-clear explanations, for her blog (Natashamhatre.blogspot.com) and her book Secret Lives (IISc).

 

"I’ve changed how students learn"
Pooja Sankar, 34
Founder, Piazza

She harnessed her poor social skills: One of only three women in a computer science class of 50 at IIT Kanpur, Sankar was too shy to interact with male students. That meant missing out on important discussions that Google searches and online forums couldn’t replicate. When at Stanford Graduate School of Business, she conceived Piazza – an online peer network and learning platform that students could access whether they were studying in their dorm room in the early hours of the morning, couldn’t get answers in class, or, like Sankar, were too shy to ask. Today, Piazza is a lifesaver to over 8,00,000 students across the US.

She’s an accidental businesswoman: “I lacked traditional business experience when I launched Piazza, but I had a brilliant team and advisors,” says Palo Alto-based Sankar. One of them was entrepreneur Steve Loughlin (co-founder of RelateIQ), who bumped into Sankar at a coffee shop where she shared her vision for Piazza. Another was Albert Prast, who stumbled on Piazza in an online article in 2010, and became its first angel investor, even introducing her to Silicon Valley business people – “Including the man who would eventually become my husband!”

She doesn’t think women can have it all: Sankar gave birth to a son in 2012, and has been vocal about the challenges of balancing motherhood and work. “The reality is that it’s much harder for women than for men. That’s why it’s so important that women have role models as they try to balance motherhood and a career.”

 

"I use video games to fight discrimination"
Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, 30
CEO, The Tiniest Shark

She’s the smallest big fish: The UK-based computer science graduate won a six-month scholarship to study in various top American B-schools, including MIT, in 2007. “It was part of a new scheme set up by the British Prime Minister,” she explains. The experience primed her to start her own one-woman game development venture, The Tiniest Shark. Two years later, in 2011, her very first game, Redshirt, won her the BAFTA Breakthrough Brit award. The “cynical but intriguing” gameplay, which involves social networking on a space station, is born out of her love for simulation games like The Sims and Star Trek.

She’s changing society with her console: In her TEDxEastEnd talk early this year, Khandaker-Kokoris talked about the problem of sexism and racism in the virtual world and how her game attempts to challenge default settings in minority representation (a subject she feels strongly about because of her Bangladeshi roots). Redshirt makes character creation more inclusive with a variety of skin colours to choose from and an optional heterosexuality.

She prescribes gaming for a healthy life: She lectures on the benefits of video games (including an audio-lecture for The BBC), but how does she feel about all that noise about their ill-effects? “The notion that video games damage our social skills and physical health is just conjecture,” she says. “Countless studies have indicated that gaming has a positive impact on many areas, including physical coordination and teaching skills.”

 

"I’m making drugs cheaper"
Divya Nag, 22
Co-founder, Stem Cell Theranostics and founder, StartX Med

She dropped out of Stanford: Nag decided to fight heart disease through stem cell research while still pursuing a degree in human biology. “Stanford laid the foundation for what has come to be the most meaningful work of my career. But once I discovered my passion, choosing to drop out to pursue cool opportunities in this field was very easy,” she says.

She’s changing the drugtesting process: To shorten the lag between medical breakthroughs and the final production of cardiovascular drugs, Nag cofounded Stem Cell Theranostics. Currently, it takes around 12 years and billions of dollars for a new drug to clear clinical trials (carried out on lab animals), making them more expensive for consumers. Nag’s company is cutting down that time by half (and reducing costs) by carrying out clinical trials in a dish. “We’ve developed a technology that converts skin cells into stem cells and finally into beating heart cells in a dish, which can be used for drug-testing,” she explains.

She’s mentoring geniuses: Silicon Valley-based Nag founded the StartX Med programme to bring Stanford’s medical innovations to life. “StartX Med is tailored to help medical entrepreneurs through the process of starting a company, right from honing their pitches to picking the right lawyers,” says Nag.

 

"I’m making summers less hot"
Vibhuti Patel, 30
International Development Manager (India), Royal Society of Chemistry

She’s fighting climate change: The UK-based biochemistry graduate explains her area of study, mass spectrometry, as “a tool which enables you to accurately measure what proteins are present in bacteria.” She is studying ways to reduce the amount of methane in our atmosphere (the gas that makes summers increasingly unbearable).

She wants to see more Indian women in chemistry: “My role at the Royal Society of Chemistry is to oversee advancement in chemical science in India.” Patel’s view that female representation in science remains sparse is reinforced during her visits to the country. “I’ve been to a lot of academic institutes across India, and often, I’m the only woman in the room. In the UK, there are a lot of programmes promoting a positive message about women in science, from perceptions at the school level to the treatment of female researchers. I’d love to see something similar in India.”

She’s trying to make science fun: Earlier this year, Patel was part of the UK leg of the non-profit initiative Pint of Science, which ran across several countries. “Scientists were invited to come to pubs and bars and give short talks about their subjects, which could be understood by people who weren’t from a science background. It was a chance for them to learn about the latest research in a relaxed environment, and to see how science affects our everyday lives,” she says.

 

"I changed London’s skyline"
Roma Agrawal, 30
Associate Structural Engineer, WSP

She made a new record: Agrawal spent six years working on The Shard in London, designing its foundations and spire, and considers the tallest building in the European Union (which opened last year) her favourite project. “Working on The Shard was a dream. It is a beautiful, iconic skyscraper, which has redefined the London skyline.”

She’s no stranger to self-doubt: She went to Oxford with no real career plan, knowing only that she loved maths and science. “I often wondered why I was admitted to Oxford to study physics. I didn’t feel smart enough.” But with industry awards flowing in, and The BBC and The Guardian approaching her for her expertise, it doesn’t look like confidence is going to be in short supply for this engineer.

She’s giving girls a headstart: Only eight per cent of students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects in the UK are women – and Agrawal is determined to change that. She’s worked with the Royal Academy of Engineering, Institution of Structural Engineers Technology to make it happen, and regularly presents at events like TEDxLondon to influence students. “I know that throughout their lives, girls receive messages that science and maths are not for them, starting from science toys which are marketed only to boys. We need to let children explore the world without restriction.” 

 

"I push for energy efficiency"
Shraddha Chaplot, 29
Innovator, Cisco

She’s on her first job: The electrical engineering graduate from the University of California San Diego started with an internship at Cisco seven years ago, then swiftly scaled the ranks to become an innovator at the tech giant. She was responsible for testing the company’s products (routers, servers and such), to ensure they met global standards and were accessible to anyone with disabilities. 

She’s saving our energy: When Cisco signed up for Energy Star, the US government-backed voluntary programme which works towards energy efficiency, she found a new role. “I was building the Energy Star compliance lab to test and qualify all our products. I think of it as a start-up within the company, because it wasn’t something that we knew how to do before.”

She’s all for equal opportunity: Chaplot was working with The National Technical Institute for the Deaf to better Cisco’s teleconferencing systems, among other things. In the course of that, she recruited two interns who were hearing-impaired. “We’d never had that before. At a company meeting we had our CEO, who had learned a bit of sign language, answering their questions (with help from interpreters) and over 70,000 people watching. It felt like a big moment.”

"I make oil from plastic"
Priyanka Bakaya, 31
Founder and CEO, PK Clean

She changed the rules: Bakaya has reverse-engineered plastic to arrive at oil. But unlike conventional waste management systems, her process doesn’t release toxins – “The natural gas, generated as a by-product, goes right back into heating the unit,” she reveals. The Asian-Australian’s interest in innovation was sparked by Percy Kean, a family friend after whom she named her Utah-based company PK Clean. “He’d been working on alternative energy technologies, and would show me oil samples made from waste – I was fascinated.”

She was spurred by rising oil prices: After completing her bachelor’s at Stanford, she worked at Lehman Brothers as an energy and research analyst for commodities (gas and oil). In 2007, she witnessed oil prices spike sharply – “On the one hand, there was talk of oil sources depleting and at the same time, there were figures to prove that only eight per cent of plastic in America is recycled.” With Kean’s theories in mind, she headed to MIT to find a low-cost solution.

She deals with problems of scale: “The biggest challenge has been expanding scale,” she says. She ran a pilot programme in Pune, where her family is originally from, but faced an early setback. “It was hard enough dealing with new technology, but it was made more difficult by all the red tape and corruption.” She wrapped up soon and turned her attention to her Salt Lake City plant, which now turns 10 tonnes of plastic waste to produce 60 barrels of oil, daily. 

 

"I’m a space fitness instructor"
Vinita Marwaha, 27
Consultant, European Space Agency

She spent a small eternity at school: After graduating from King’s College London in maths and astrophysics, Marwaha followed it up with a diploma in space studies at the International Space University, Barcelona. Then a master’s in astronautics and space engineering from Cranfield University, UK. And a second master’s from the International Space University, Strasbourg, in space management – “it’s like the MBA equivalent of the space industry. 

She ensures astronauts get their physio: In 2010, she worked at the European Space Agency (ESA), where she designed a space suit called Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit (GLCS), which prevents bone and muscle loss in space. It will make its debut next year. “Usually astronauts lose upto two per cent of bone mass for every month they spend in space,” she explains. “They’re supposed to exercise for two hours every day to prevent this, and so the GLCS is integrated with the exercise equipment on board.” Marwaha was also the first to develop an instructional video that was sent to the International Space Station.

She’s making smart cars: Aside from being involved in the space industry, she’s the engineering manager at Miovision Technologies, Canada. It’s where she leads a team of about ten which develops Intelligent Transportation Systems (think self-driving cars).

 

"I research 19th century quacks"
Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi, 32
Instructor, Ryerson University and historian

She mines medicine history: On historian Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi’s blog (From The Hands Of Quacks) or Twitter account (@jaivirdi), you’re likely to land on some lesser-known historical fact about medicine. It could be something as obscure as a photograph of an enema set from the 1840s, or as surreal as an 1802 painting of smallpox vaccine inventor Dr Edward Jenner immunising people. Her particular area of interest, exploring the history of medical ‘cures’ for deafness in Britain and America, became the subject of her PhD from the University of Toronto and her forthcoming book. Through her blog, the part-time instructor looks into “the changing authority of surgical practice and the questionable boundaries between innovation and ‘quack’ remedies”.

She turned her weakness into her strength: “When I was four years old, I lost my hearing from bacterial meningitis; an inflammation of the brain membranes and spinal cord,” she shares. It fuelled her ambition to become a doctor, but she eventually studied the philosophy of science, and later, the history of medicine.

She is a permanent student: She struggles with explaining what she does to non-academics. “It can be difficult, because they perceive me as a ‘student’ and not a historian, as if once I complete my studies, I’ll get a ‘real job’ and earn an income. It’s hard explaining that I’ll be in school for the rest of my life.” 

Photographs: Ryan Lash (Nina Tandon), Jesse Craig/BAFTA (Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris), Nicola Evans/WSP (Roma Agarwal), Mauricio Palomar (Shraddha Chaplot), Jill Jackson Photography (Priyanka Bakaya)