How many teenagers have a planet named after them by the MIT? How many 19-year-olds are featured in a film that premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival?
The honour goes to Sahithi Pingali, Stanford University student, who is studying to major in Environmental Systems and Engineering, and minor in Computer Science.
When she was 15 and a Class X student, she crowdsourced funds to study the 10 polluted lakes in her home city Bengaluru.
She had been searching for a big lab to help in her research. Her emails to professors at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, mostly went unanswered. One of them had even condescendingly written back, “You’re simply not old enough for such lab work. I’d rather recommend you a list of books to read.” She wasn’t discouraged.
“If I had followed that IISc professor’s advice in 2016, none of this would have happened. There are adults who’ll discourage you because you are young and lack a degree but there are many who are super willing to mentor you. Your aim should be to find them. Today, in just my teens, I’ve worked at many high-tech labs, no questions asked,” she beams with confidence.
Now 19, Pingali is having the last laugh.
In these four years, the self-taught coder has created the app ‘WaterInsights’ and a testing kit to collect data from the sulfurous lakes.
Among the open source tools she used was MIT App Inventor.
The project took her to Los Angeles in 2017 as one of the top finalists at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), at which MIT named the eponymous planet 34014, Pingali.
The teenage innovator’s journey has been recorded in the documentary Inventing Tomorrow, where she has been featured alongside three international ISEF finalists who presented cutting-edge solutions to tackle the water, air and soil pollution.
This June, the documentary lifted the prestigious Peabody Award in the US, which celebrates powerful eco-stories.
In the 87-minute film, Pingali’s multitasking life at school, lab, home and around friends was filmed in her hometown.
“I was invited to work at a lab in the Environmental Engineering Department of the University of Michigan for two months. I had just entered Grade XII but it was too big an opportunity to miss,” she recalls. “I didn’t study Computer Programming in school but the Stanford course was too cool to miss!”
Pingali has just completed her second year and is waiting for the pandemic situation to get better so that she can return to college in the fall.
“Meanwhile, I am interning with a startup in the Bay Area that’s building a super cool, low-cost technology to store energy because, you know, the sun doesn’t always shine and rivers might not always flow,” she tells us enthusiastically.
Then, of course, she has her WaterInsights not-for-profit startup to run. She has co-developed a five-day school curriculum to create awareness on water pollution and collect data about the quality of water from different areas to create an online ‘Water Health Map of the World’.
“Last year I piloted the curriculum in 15 schools across 13 states in the US. Close to 300 students took part and shared 1,800 data points about water from their locality. I am using the lockdown time to analyse these. I want to make it the Wikipedia for Water,” says Pingali, her dream cut out.
She is targeting school students as she feels her generation “is more willing to take care of the environment”.
Her foray into water research and activism is a shining example. It was in 2015, on a school field trip to Bengaluru’s Varthur Lake, which is infamous for frothing, catching fire and smelling foul, when Pingali found her true calling.
She recounts the instances that shook her, “A woman, who had been running a tea stall near the Varthur Lake for many years, told me that because the lake smelt bad all the time, nobody wanted to stop by her shop. It hurt her livelihood. I asked a farmer if it was healthy to use the heavily contaminated lake water for his tomato fields. He didn’t see a problem but residents buying vegetables from the local market were worried.”
During a school panel discussion with water activists and researchers, Pingali heard alarming news.
“One of them alleged that though industries around the Varthur Lake have a Sewage Treatment Plant each, in order to save electricity and maintenance costs, these are hardly used. It was a wake-up call to do something for our lakes,” she says.
After watching Inventing Tomorrow’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, the audience, which mostly consisted of adults, became emotional. They treated Pingali and fellow innovators as celebrities.
“Most climate movies are quite sad. They show polar bears dying and ice melting. Our movie moved the adults because it gave them hope,” she smiles.
The hope that youngsters will find solutions to save the planet, come what may. “I got access to a different lab at the IISc eventually,” Pingali makes her point.