Building a foundation for science and research to improve our world: Ruchi Shah at TEDxSBU

Building a foundation for science and research to improve our world: Ruchi Shah at TEDxSBU

Translator: Angel Hsu
Reviewer: Helena Bedalli From a young age,
I’ve been in love with science. As my parents often recall, I’ve always
asked questions about everything, And I mean, everything. How do plants grow? Why are bridges shaped like that? What’s in the shot that the doctor
just gave me? Can animals talk to each other? And the questions went on and on. Thankfully, my parents encouraged
that questioning, and I channeled my energy
into after school projects and elementary school science fairs. But then, came a moment,
that changed my life forever. I was fifteen years old,
and on a trip to India with my family. I’ll never forget seeing a long
line of people outside of a tiny clinic, waiting to get treatment
for mosquito transmitted diseases. As I came home, I couldn’t forget
those people, I couldn’t forget the look of suffering
in their eyes. And I knew I had to do something
to help them. And that was when my journey truly began. Now as I came home
and began doing some research, I was surprised to find that over 250 million people worldwide
are infected by malaria alone. And these people are more concentrated
in developing countries. And so a question popped into my mind, “Why is there such a high prevalence
of mosquito transmitted diseases in developing countries?” Oftentimes, the answer is that people there can’t afford
traditional mosquito repellents. And so my solution: Invent an all-natural,
and inexpensive mosquito repellent that will be accessible
to the global population. But as a high school sophomore, I had this big idea,
but very few resources. And most people I told my idea to,
thought I was crazy, or way too ambitious. Thankfully, however, my science research teacher
and my parents believed in my goal. They believed in this idea. And that was when the fun
and the hard work began. Now, in many ways, I was like a start-up, working in my garage
and in my high school classroom, and I started out with trips
to my local hardware store to buy all the equipment to build the different things
that I was going to use in my experiment. The first thing I wanted to find out was why certain people are more attractive
to mosquitoes than others. Because I’m someone who when I go outside,
I come back covered in mosquito bites, yet I have friends, who could be
in the same place at the same time and they don’t get bit at all. And I always used to wonder,
is there something in our perspiration, that makes us
more attractive to mosquitoes? And through my experiments,
what I found was that people who have higher levels of nitrogen-based
compounds in their perspiration are more attractive to mosquitoes
than those who have lower levels. So I thought, “What if I can make
an all natural repellent that would neutralize
these attractive components then they’ll no longer be attractive and the mosquitoes won’t be attracted
to us anymore?” So I started playing around
with fruit juices, and plant extracts, and different oils. And after what I can definitely say
is a notebook full of failed recipes, I finally landed upon one that
shows great promise. Not only is it really effective,
but it’s also all-natural. So it won’t lead to environmental harm,
or to bodily harm, and it’s inexpensive, so it will be accessible
to the global population. So where am I today? I’m currently in the process
of looking for investors to patent my repellent and bring it
to the next level and market it. And on the other hand, I’ve also been conducting research
at Stonybrook University for the past three years, looking to improve
the diagnosis of cervical cancer. I also just completed a ten-week
fellowship at the Jackson Laboratories, further investigating cancer
and tumor formation. But standing here today,
I feel so fortunate, to have this opportunity
to share my story with you all. But I can’t imagine how different
my life would be if I didn’t have mentors along the way to motivate me and to support me
to get to this point in my life. Because my idea would have
just stayed an idea. I’m grateful that the first time
I’ve told my science research teacher that I wanted to create
this all natural mosquito repellent, that she didn’t say no,
she didn’t discourage me. Instead, she asked me, “Do you really want to do this?
Are you willing to put in the work?” And when my answer was yes, she said, “Okay, we’re going to go
on this journey together.” And that was something that’s so special
to me, to have someone supportive, but who didn’t just show me the answers, who challenged me to look for them myself, to find these resources
and to utilize them in new ways. That is really what makes
mentorships so important. Now for me, science has always been
the solution to all of my problems, and I guess that’s a result
of growing up in a household with both of my parents being engineers, because any household problem
we encountered was solved through innovation. And I remember, instead of going
to the supermarket to buy chemical cleaners, my mom and I would spend time
in the kitchen putting together our own all-natural
household cleaners. And that’s something
that I love so much about science. Is that you can start with a problem,
or a question that you have, and through failures, through mistakes,
and through a brainstorming process, you can come up with a tangible product. In my case, it was
an all natural mosquito repellent. But it’s a tangible product, that has the ability to create real change
in our community and our world. And it’s in those failures, I think, that I’ve learned the most while
I was creating this mosquito repellent. Learning to persist through them, learning
to use these failures to motivate me, and it’s difficult to do that oftentimes
when you’re on your own, unless you have a mentor there
who believes in you and who continues to encourage you
through those failures. But besides just that,
besides the support aspect of mentorship, mentorship is important
because it can show people, and it can show our society
that science is open to all people, regardless of age, regardless of gender,
regardless of race. I think even though science and people
who do science have changed a lot over the decades, society’s perception of them
has almost stayed exactly the same. So let’s try a little example
to show this. I’m going to say a sentence, and I’d like for you all to picture
this sentence as best as possible. There once was a scientist,
who synthesized a new chemical compound to treat tuberculosis patients. Who did you picture? A male, maybe in a white lab coat,
sitting next to a microscope, or with a beaker full of solution? And if you did, don’t worry,
because I did too the first time, and that scared me. I am a woman in the field of science
with mentors who are women. Yet I still had this image
of what a scientist is. And there’s recently a study
done at the Fermy Lab. And what they did was they took in
a class of seventh grade students, and they asked them to draw a picture
of who they think a scientist is. And as you can see behind me,
who they drew were men, in white lab coats, one of them
holding a beaker with solutions. Because this is
who we think scientists are, and then they brought these people
into a lab environment. They let them spend the day
talking to scientists and seeing what science actually is. And then they brought them back, and said, “Okay, now draw a picture
of who you think a scientist is.” And what they drew, was something
far different. They drew men and women
wearing colorful clothing, they saw that scientists are real people. And I think that little example
of bringing these seventh grade students into a classroom and allowing
them to see what science is, we can translate that
into our society in general. If people have the ability to see that
science isn’t something that’s polarized but it in fact is linked
to all facets of our life, and bringing innovation to life
involves not just science, but it involves businessmen,
lawyers, it involves designers, and that science is a cohesive
and important part of our society. If we can make these bridges
by making science accessible to people, we’ll create a better society. And so we need to break
these stereotypes, because science, the broad subject
that it is, it’s multidisciplinary. It’s exciting, it’s passionate, we need to bridge these gaps
so that people can see that. And so today, I’d like to propose
a challenge to you all. Imagine how different our world would be, if each student who had an idea
like the one I did, was given the resources
to pursue that idea. Not only would we have more innovation
in our society, but we’d also create
a generation of students who are committed
to the scientific process, committed to putting in the work, a generation of thinkers
and change-makers, and so my challenge to you all is
to mentor one child, inspire him or her to see science not just as what’s taught in the textbook,
but as a world around us. Challenge him or her
to use science to create change because through this mentorship, we can start to foster this love
for the essence of what science is, which will then lead to innovation, and ultimately, tangible changes
that can make our society and our world a better place. Thank you.

Comments (5)

  1. I am so proud of you Ruchi!

  2. It's incredible to see what a young person can achieve with an incredible idea. Beautiful TED talk!

  3. great work and talk, very inspiring! (Y)

  4. matraffi

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