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Mason High School senior Laalitya Acharya says she wasn’t allowed to drink Coca-Cola as a child. In rebellion, she experimented in the kitchen, trying to recreate the secret recipe from scratch.
“I think I always had a curious spark within me,” the 17-year-old first-generation Indian immigrant told The Enquirer. Her parents are from Gujarat.
That curious spark would later lead her to invent a water contamination-detecting device she hopes will bring clean water to homes around the world. The device landed her as a finalist in Society For Science’s national Regeneron Science Talent Search 2021, an annual science and mathematics competition dating back to 1942.
Laalitya is the only Ohio student finalist in the program. This year more than 1,700 seniors entered research projects, and 40 were chosen as finalists to receive $25,000, minimum. The top 10 finalists will be awarded up to $250,000, according to the website. The winners will be announced Wednesday night during a livestreamed award ceremony on YouTube.
Laalitya says she’s been competing in science fairs for nearly 10 years. Her first competitive fair was in 2016, when she was a seventh-grader. That’s when she first learned about the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition, and it’s been a dream of hers to enter ever since.
“When I was a senior I knew that I just had to apply because it’s such an incredible honor to be able to present my research to some of the best scientists in the world,” Laalitya said.
Mason City Schools does not have a traditional research program, Laalitya says. But Mason Middle School engineering teacher Bethany Jones has been her mentor since seventh grade and always supported her research, alongside her parents.
Jones was never Laalitya’s teacher, but Laalitya sought her out to get ready for one of her early science fairs. Laalitya wanted to use the 3D printer in Jones’ classroom.
They kept in touch when Laalitya went to high school. Jones described Laalitya as a “stand-out” student: smart, articulate and driven. In her 16 years of teaching, Jones says she hasn’t met another student quite like Laalitya.
“You can definitely tell she knows what she wants,” Jones said. “She is determined to, in the science field, make a difference and truly help people.”
Detecting water contamination
Laalitya became aware of the global “glaring water gap” during a 2018 family trip to India, where she says there was a “clear lack of access” to clean water.
“Coming from a place of privilege in the United States, I didn’t understand how big of an issue this is until I saw it first hand,” she said. “We are able to turn on a tap and even drink water directly from there. But that’s not the situation for people all across the world.”
Despite precautions she and her family took, Laalitya says she still felt sick from the water she drank on the trip. When she got home, she began researching water contamination.
There are about 785 million people across the globe who lack a basic drinking water service, according to the World Health Organization. At least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces.
“I found that the current solutions just aren’t up to par,” Laalitya said. “I knew there had to be a better and more integrable device that could be created to help at least detect contamination early on.”
So, she invented Neried.
Nereid is a device that takes microscopic images of water to detect contamination, Laalitya says. The device’s findings are then transmitted to the local water plant or research computer for further investigation. This way, she says, contamination can be detected early and authorities can stop the spread of microbes before they contaminate entire water systems.
Now Laalitya says she is working with local authorities to get Nereid into initial real-world testing. She hopes there will be two Nereid models: one that will be directly placed into water systems and water pipes, and one that individuals can place in their homes.
Laalitya has yet to decide on a university but says she plans on majoring in bioengineering or biomedical engineering. She hopes to continue researching and developing Nereid beyond the Society for Science competition and into her collegiate studies.