14-year-old Indian-American girl wins top prize of $25,000, is conferred with ‘Improving Lives Award’ at 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, October 29, 2020 – A brilliant 14-year-old Indian-American girl has been crowned America’s Top Scientist of the year for her research to develop a novel antiviral drug to combat the spread of Covid-19. Anika Chebrolu of Frisco, Texas, earned first place in the highly competitive Young Scientist Challenge, an annual science competition for middle school students organized by 3M in partnership with Discovery Education.
The budding scientist, an eighth-grader at Nelson Middle School at the time of entering the contest, used in-silico methodology for drug discovery to find a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in an attempt to find a cure for the Covid-19 pandemic. For her commendable efforts to find this lead compound that can be a potential drug for the effective treatment of the deadly coronavirus disease, she was conferred with the title of ‘America’s Top Young Scientist’, awarded the grand prize of $25,000 dollars, bestowed with the ‘Improving Lives Award’, and gifted with a special destination trip.
In third place was another Indian-American teen, Laasya Acharya, 12, of Mason, Ohio. A seventh-grader at Mason Middle School, Laasya developed a solution that will enable farmers to detect diseased and unhealthy crops thereby reducing food wastage during the harvesting phase.
Interestingly, this year, of the ten finalists, seven were of Indian descent: Rithvik Ijju, 13, of Englewood, Colorado; Ekansh Mittal, 13, of Beaverton, Oregon; Harsha Pillarisetti. 13, of San Ramon, California; Samhita Pokkunuri, 12, of Old Bridge, New Jersey; Samvrit Rao, 12, of Ashburn, Virginia; Anika; and Laasya. Among these Indian-origin kids, four hail from Telugu-speaking families: Anika; Samhita; Harsha; and Samvrit.
The competition, an interactive virtual event, was held over two days, October 12-13, during which the young changemakers, ages 11 to 14, were evaluated on a series of challenges and a presentation of their completed project.
The finalists – next generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) leaders — were selected from hundreds of competitors across the nation based on their scientific prowess, exceptional innovative and communication skills, and an uncanny ability to make a positive difference in their community, country, and around the world.
Given the global pandemic and the resulting public health crisis it has created, there is a pressing need to find a cure for the novel coronavirus which has killed more than 1.1 million people globally. In the US, over 226,000 have died according to data from the John Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE).
Anika decided to take part in the competition after she battled a severe influenza infection last year. Her initial focus was on combating the common flu.
“I was drawn towards finding effective cures for Influenza disease after a severe bout of the infection last year”, she stated on the 3M website. “I would like to learn more from 3M scientists to pursue my drug development and with their help, would like to conduct in-vitro and in-vivo testing of my lead drug candidate”.
Her focus shifted from the flu given the severity of the novel coronavirus. More people have died from Covid-19 than in the past five flu seasons combined. And coronavirus is far more contagious!
“After spending so much time researching about pandemics, viruses and drug discovery, it was crazy to think that I was actually living through something like this”, Anika stated.
According to a press communique by 3M, the Texas teen “discovered a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2. Binding and inhibiting this viral protein would potentially stop the virus entry into the cell, creating a viable drug target. In her research, Anika screened millions of small molecules for drug likeness properties, ADMET properties, and binding affinities against the spike protein using numerous software tools. The one molecule with the best pharmacological and biological activity towards the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was chosen as the lead molecule that can be a potential drug for the effective treatment of Covid-19″.
Currently a freshman at Independence High School in Frisco, Anika’s motto is: “Never stop asking questions”. In her spare time, she learns Bharatanatyam, a pre-eminent Indian classical dance form, which she has been practicing for eight years. About the future, she aspires to be a medical researcher and professor.
Congratulatory messages have poured in for Anika on microblogging site Twitter following her big win at the youth science and engineering competition administered by Discovery Education and 3M.
Commending Anika for acing the prestigious science competition, the GOP Governor of Texas Greg Abbott noted, “14-year-old Anika Chebrolu of Frisco has been named the winner of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. Her discovery could help provide a potential therapy to Covid-19. Awesome work, Anika, and congratulations”, he gushed.
Texas senator John Cornyn, Republican co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, enthused, “Very impressive. Anika Chebrolu just won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge award for her research in developing a possible cure for Covid-19. You make Texas proud, Anika”.
Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, one of four Indian-American lawmakers serving in the US House of Representatives, tweeted, “Incredible! Congratulations to Anika Chebrolu. I hope her research will be instrumental in the development of a Covid-19 treatment”.
Ajit Pai, the Indian-American chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said, “A fantastic accomplishment! Congratulations to Anika and her family. Making the Indian-American community proud!”
Indian Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu tweeted, “Congratulations to 14-year-old Indian-American Anika Chebrolu from Texas for winning 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge and a $25,000 prize for her work on potential therapy for Covid-19″.
Indian entrepreneur Anand Mahindra who has garnered a huge following for his informative and witty social media posts, noted about the Telugu-speaking finalists, “Looks like a new Indian American sporting team in the making: ‘Telugu Teen Titans’. Except that their sport isn’t Kabaddi, but cutting edge scientific research”.
Among the other finalists of the 13th edition of the Young Scientist Challenge were: Kyle Tianshi, 13, of San Diego, California; Xavier Baquero-Iglesias, 11, of Naples, Florida; and Sophia Weiner, 14, of Rockledge, Florida. All ten – four girls and six boys – were afforded an opportunity to work one-on-one with a renowned 3M scientist who, over the past few months, helped transform their idea from concept to physical prototype. The second and third place winners each received $1,000 and a special destination trip. Those students in fourth through tenth place each received $1,000 plus a $500 excitations gift card.
“Amidst the challenges of a global pandemic, quality STEM education for all has become an even more urgent need and 3M’s commitment to fostering the next generation of science leaders has never been more determined”, said Denise Rutherford, senior vice president of Corporate Affairs at 3M. “In spite of challenges like adjusting to new norms of distance learning and participating in virtual events, this year’s 3M Young Scientist Challenge finalists have smashed through barriers with grit, creativity, innovative thinking and excitement – all in the name of applying science to improve lives. 3M is inspired by these young innovators and we celebrate each one of them. Our heartfelt congratulations go to this year’s winner, Anika Chebrolu, and our many thanks to all our 3M Young Scientist Challenge finalists”.
Following Anika’s win, Indian-origin kids have been crowned champion of the competition in six of the last eight years: Rishab Jain (2018); Gitanjali Rao (2017); Maanasa Mendu (2016); Sahil Doshi (2014); and Deepika Kurup (2012).
The competition was first launched by Discovery Communications in 1999 and in 2008, Discovery Education joined forces with 3M to present the Young Scientist Challenge.
It is the nation’s premier science contest for students in grades 5 through 8, and has turned scores of young people across the nation into innovators while enhancing science exploration and honing communication skills. The goal is “to foster a new generation of American scientists at an age when interest in science generally declines”. Students are encouraged to think out of the box, to come up with innovative ideas and solutions for tomorrow’s pressing issues.
“For over a decade, Discovery Education and 3M have shared a commitment to empowering young people to bring the power of STEM learning to life”, said Lori McFarling, president of Corporate & Community Partnerships at Discovery Education. “All of this year’s participants demonstrated their deep engagement in these critical disciplines, and we are so pleased to have supported the 2020 participants in their endeavors”.