By Nikita Puri
Bengaluru: For almost a year, Sahithi Pingali’s faithful companions included a small blue-green plastic tumbler and some jute rope.
Armed with these two things, Sahithi would show up besides Bengaluru’s ignominious water bodies, like the foaming Varthur and BellandurLake once every week.
The teenager would then carefully make her way into the water, some of which has been known to ‘catch fire’, and swing the tumbler in to scoop some out.
After scrupulously noting down the GPS coordinates of her location, Sahithi would make her way home.
While most try to stay clear of these toxic lakes for fear of sickness or plain repugnance, here was a 16 year old who’d almost never miss her scheduled visits to these exemplars of neglect.
Once back home, Sahithi would carefully funnel the water into a bottle for developing ‘testing’ mechanisms.
This was no child’s play. Over the last one year, Sahithi has developed a low-cost, easy-to-use mobile app that works with electronic sensors and chemical test strips.
The app allows users to check contamination, and all of the data can be stored online to build a data bank.
It is for this feat that Sahithi will now have a minor planet in the Milky Way named after her.
In June, at The International Sustainable World Engineering Energy Environment Project Olympiad held in Houston, Texas, Sahithi won the gold for her innovative research on how to monitor freshwater bodies.
She then took the project to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), the world’s largest pre-college science competition, which has a tie-up with the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
This research facility has discovered about 250,000 near-Earth objects since its operations in 1998. The naming rights for 137,000 of these discoveries lie with the lab that has partnered with the Society for Science and the Public to honor young scientists.
At this event, Sahithi went on to win special awards from the Arizona State University, one from Saudi Arabia’s king and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity, and another from the US Agency for International Development.
A few hours later, Sahithi made her way to the stage once again.
This time around, it was announced that this teen would have a planet as her namesake.
Sitting in the audience during these announcements were her parents, Gopal and Aruna, and her younger siblings, Lalitha (12) and Sreekari (9).
As a distinguished scientist and vice-president at IBM, one wouldn’t think Sahithi’s father Gopal would face a paucity of words, but he has seemingly run out of adjectives.
“This is so exciting. It’s amazing. It’s so inspiring…” he trails off, laughing.
When Sahithi was initially selected to represent the country at the international fair, Gopal remembers being thrilled.
“I couldn’t think of anyone in our family who had ever represented the country in an international event. That itself was overwhelming,” he says. “Now, she’s won on behalf of India and put our family’s name in the sky.”
Sahithi’s achievement has also opened the portal to a galaxy of space quips: “She’s shown that the sky is not the limit,” says Gopal, adding to the growing collection.
While these announcements were being made in Houston, at Sahithi’s school back in Bengaluru, about 700 students were sitting around on mattresses. They had gathered for their annual sleepover, and the news of Sahithi’s achievement was met with loud cheers across Inventure Academy’s campus.
Sahithi has studied here for eight years, ever since her family moved to the city from New York.
“Now, we can look for Sahithi in the sky,” became the most common one-liner that night.
Sahithi wanted to be a writer when she was younger, but by the time she reached middle school, her interest in science, math and environmental studies was unmatched.
“I grew up in the US where a lot of consciousness is building around environmental issues,” says Sahithi.
The move to Bengaluru only heightened Sahithi’s interests, especially when she became a part of her school’s change-making initiative, ‘Our Lakes, Our Voice’.
“I lived in an apartment overlooking the Kaikondrahalli lake, and I didn’t even know it was a lake until I saw workmen pour water into it,” recalls Sahithi. Kaikondrahalli lake is one of the few rejuvenated lakes in Bengaluru.
The contrast between how our water bodies are and how they should be has been very glaring for her.
“I think this is because she’s old enough to notice it, and young enough to be sensitive about it,” says Gopal.
An avid reader, Sahithi’s long-term problem has centered on picking between favorites. So rather than pick a favorite, she prefers to talk about her current read, Frugal Innovation: How to Do Better With Less (Jaideep Prabhu and Navi Radjou).
Presently an intern at the civil and environmental engineering department of Michigan, Sahithi celebrates discipline.
“She always makes schedules for the coming days and weeks, and always sticks to them. Her younger sisters may stay up late, but Sahithi makes it a point to go off to bed by 9 pm, even during exams,” says her father.
“Sahithi is tremendously focused and dedicated. She’s got a lot of grit and has always been more for actions than words,” notes Nooraine Fazal, co-founder and managing trustee, Inventure Academy.
Sahithi, says Fazal, realized that people will only want to fix a problem after they acknowledge it.
This is where her mobile, water-testing app comes in handy by color-coding results. (Blue means the water is fit for drinking with disinfection, purple signifies it’s fine to bathe in. Yellow is good for fish, and so on.)
Seeing their daughter pouring over academic books has been a common sight for as long as her parents can remember.
By grade eight, Sahithi had progressed to spending hours reading college-level material, and then writing international senior-level exams.
The first time around, she was plain curious. Soon, the novelty of taking exams beyond her grade took another form.
‘I find freedom in self-study,’ Sahithi told her parents back then.
Even here, she found it difficult to choose subjects: She was following Physics papers as much as Biology ones, and taking on calculus when she was in the ninth grade.
‘Imagine how the world would be/ Without any technology,’ Sahithi writes in a poem posted on her blog. ‘Imagine that there were no screw/If you had to hold things together/There would be nothing to do. Your desks would break, And the doors would fall flat/Imagine all the problems caused because of that.’
She wrote this when she was 10.
It’d be easy for anyone to label Sahithi as a nerd, but her interests are varied.
She was playing the piano till Class X, then found a “deeper connection” with the veena.
She also practises Bharata Natyam. “You can see that she dances with joy,” says Aruna, Sahithi’s mother, also a classical dance teacher.
As a Harry Potter fan, she agrees that it’d be lovely to have magical beasts who could clean up our lakes. But even before she decides on which of the beasts from Potterverse could be a suitable candidate, the scientist in her takes over.
“I think using magic will come with its own price, so before making a decision on the kind of beast to use, I would need to know how to control them,” says Sahithi who wants her work to always be motivated by social needs.
“Sahithi’s generation is much more environment conscious. They are the ones opening our eyes,” says Gopal. “It’s a good thing that children like Sahithi are going beyond smiley emoticons and are actually finding a connect with the real world,” says Fazal.
Children should have a say in their future, she adds, and this is how Sahithi is doing it.
After her internship, Sahithi will return to the city by August. Among those who await her include her veena, Bengaluru’s lakes, and a host of well-wishers armed with space puns.