Our next conversation series offers an exclusive look into the "The Science of Disruption." In this series, we highlight young scientists and entrepreneurs whose body of work has rocked modern science. Without formal training, these curious and determined minds broke with convention to turn out remarkable innovations and discoveries. From basement labs and garage inventions, to claiming top prizes and attracting investors, we explore what it takes to ‘disrupt’ science, through the works of 'generation hack.'
To open this series, we sat down with science disruptor, Maya Burhanpurkar, whose scientific innovations have nabbed the Grand Platinum Award at the Canada-Wide National Science Fair not once, but twice. Recognized as one of Canada’s “Top 20 Under 20” future leaders, her dabblings are impressive and range from developing the first “intelligent” antibiotic to advocating youth participation in STEM as the president of Science Expo to launching her own tech startup. She is also the subject in an upcoming BBC publication featuring eight of the world’s most influential youth and is raising awareness about climate change through film. Our favorite part is that it all started in her basement.
As a scientist, entrepreneur, and social advocate you've achieved some impressive results. Where did all this begin?
Everything really began with my curiosity, I’ve always been a ridiculously curious child. I would continually ask my parents questions. Eventually, I started to ask questions that people didn’t have answers to and I think that really started my scientific journey. I was volunteering in a hospital in India. During my time there, I saw that a lot of the drugs people were given had really negative side effects. I was only 10 at the time and I wondered why something that is supposed to help us also harmed us at the same time.
You began a lot of your work at home. What made you kick-start your own research lab?
That goes back to the question I had about why do antibiotics both help and harm us. I began to research at home once I found a way to test some alternatives, I emailed probably around 100 different researchers, universities, and laboratories within a hundred mile radius of my home asking them if I could use their space for testing. I got responses like, “Maya, great ideas, but you’re 10 years old come back when you’re older!”
You're a scientist, entrepreneur, and social advocate. Why are you combining all these?
I really think that science and entrepreneurship in particular, go hand-in-hand. One of the reasons I really enjoy science is because you can bring a complex, real world issue into your lab and find a solution and then take the solution back to the world. There is really no point in doing science if your work doesn’t make it back into the real world. That’s where entrepreneurship comes in. You take your idea, innovation or invention and bring it to people, so I really think science and entrepreneurship are interconnected.
You’ve used an interdisciplinary approach to solve complex societal problems. How has that approach contributed to your success?
I’m really a strong believer in the many merits of interdisciplinary approaches. There are many cases in history where science has come up with these fantastic innovations by applying knowledge from completely different fields. I think by doing interdisciplinary research I’ve become more of a well rounded person and gained broad knowledge of different fields. As opposed to knowing a lot about one specific field and not very much about anything else.
How did you grab the attention of experts at first?
At first, I didn’t, as I mentioned I emailed scientists and got an overwhelmingly negative response from all of them. In order to get attention from experts you have to slowly build your credibility and that’s I what I had to do. For my first project it ended up taking three years to get noticed. Eventually after four years I won the Grand Platinum Prize at the Canada Wide National Science Fair. Its a process of building credibility and persisting through the let-downs. It’s all about starting at the bottom and working your way up!
What was mostly helpful on your journey as an entrepreneur and researcher?
The biggest help has been from my parents. When I told them I wanted to develop an antibiotic, they didn’t say, “you’re crazy Maya, you can’t do that, you are 10 years old!” They said go ahead, we are here to help, ‘try anything’ sort of mentality. I mean, they let me build a microbiology lab in their basement! They were really supportive and always fostered my curiosity.
Which recommendations or wise words do you have for others who are eager to do the same?
I think there are two big things that will help you be successful in science. First, never lose the curiosity you have as a child. Little kids aren’t afraid to ask questions that may be perceived as dumb or silly, but its always those “dumb” or “silly” questions that are so useful. The other bit of advice is to keep going and have perseverance. There will always be obstacles, you know, you may not be allowed into university labs the first time you try, but hey, try building a lab in your basement and see where you can get! You have to keep an open mind and persevere.
Do you think STEM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is important for youth to focus on and how has work in STEM influenced you?
I think that STEM is incredibly important for young people to be working on because so many of the most complex issues we face in the world today, things like climate change and the spread of disease, can be solved by clever and innovative use of STEM. So I think it’s really important that young people become very comfortable and knowledgeable with STEM, so that they can solve these problems.
Can you tell our readers something about you they might find surprising?
Well, there is often a stereotype around people like me. You know, people think that I’m in my basement all day and in the laboratory slaving away over these test tubes or that I never see the light of day. But there is a lot more to me than just science and research. I love to do things like snowboarding and hiking in the mountains. I’m a very artistic person and play the piano. So there is a lot more to me than just math and science!
What's ahead for you in 2015?
I’m working on my startup project with the telepresence tech. I’m also working on a project that is quite different than what I’ve done in the past. I’m working on a documentary that’s all about climate change.Climate change is often portrayed as something that will impact us somewhere far in the future. I want to address the typical apathy people have toward climate change.
At 15, and still in the thick of high school, Maya has no intention of slowing down. She is in the process of launching her tech startup and continues to advocate that youth use STEM to tackle real world issues. In light of all her accomplishments, Maya assured us that she doesn’t spend all her time in a deep dark basement focused only on test tubes and lab results. She enjoys snowboarding, hiking, and is an accomplished piano player. As she says, new ways of thinking often come through exploring a diversity of interests and experiences—all of which have contributed to her becoming “more well-rounded person.”