Kenyan high school students win at international science contest

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Vishal Vekaria and Mansi Apte - Winners of Qatar Foundation prize at ISEFLast month, two high school students made history by becoming the first Kenyans to win at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix, Arizona paving the way for other budding scientists to take up the mantle.

Meet 15 year old Vishal Vekaria and Mansi Apte, students at Shree Cutchi Leva Patel Samaj, who together won third place in the category of Environmental Engineering, sub-category of Water Resource Management. Their project looked at at ways of providing clean water to residents in arid and semi-arid areas by using a filter made from the membrane of the local sapwood tree.

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“We studied arid and semi-arid areas like Kajiado and found out that the local sapwood tree can be used to alleviate the water crisis experienced in the area,” said Mansi.

According to the the two students, people in such areas cannot get clean drinking water because of the poor rainfall. Even when it does rain, the water collects in ponds and is therefore unusable.

The branches of the sapwood tree which is indigenous to the area can be used to make a water filter because of its thin membrane.

For their project, Vishal and Mansi won the First Award of $1000 from the Qatar Foundation, Research and Development. They also got an honorable mention from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).“All you need to build the filter is a rubber tubing, a hose and the membrane of the sapwood tree. This membrane works well because it filters out bacteria,” said Vishal.

Accompanied by Vishal and Mansi at the Intel Intel Science and Engineering Fair was Ramya Yanamandra and Rupal Rabadiya. Together they presented a biosensor that is able to detect bacteria Salmonella enterica DT104 and Vibrio cholera O139.

The two students do not hide their excitement when asked to talk about their project. They go on to explain how a bulb lights when the biosensor detects bacteria,  sprinkling the conversation with scientific jargon. Listening to them talk, it is hard to imagine that they are only 15 years old. 
Ramya Yanamandra and Rupal Rabadiya

“Our conducting based biosensor uses antibodies to determine whether a certain food has bacteria,” said Ramya.

For instance, in order check if maize has bacteria it is done by testing it in a solution of antigens and antibodies. If the bulb lights then that means there is presence of bacteria. According to the two girls such a device can be useful in hospitals and even hotels to check whether food is contaminated with bacteria. Their interest in the project was inspired following a cholera outbreak they saw on the news.

The way their eyes gleam when explaining their projects, it is obvious that the two are passionate about it.

“Since the project still has some limitations, we would like help to develop it further from institutions such as universities,” said Rupal.

ISEF was a new experience for all the four students but science fairs are not. They have been participating in the Science Congress, a national contest for Kenyan high school students for quite a while now and last year they won at the national level. This win gained them entry into ISEF.

Vishal Vekaria right and Mansi Apte left demonstrate how their water purifier works. Photo: Hill+Knowlton Strategies“We got the news that we would be going to ISEF in early January and we could not wait to get there,” said an excited Mansi, her eyes quick to reveal the sheer joy of being able to participate at the contest.

“In preparation to the competition, we used to watch videos of previous contests which helped us know where we needed to add more detail to our projects,” she added.

The quartet were in Phoenix, Arizona between May 7 and 15, 2016 where they underwent a rigorous procedure of judging.

“The judging process actually starts before you travel to ISEF with the Scientific Review Committee,” said Vishal.

According to the 15 year old who is studying Physics and Chemistry as his sciences, this committee goes over your project beforehand to ensure that it is scientifically correct and original. If they have any queries then you are called upon to defend your project in the first two days of the project.

“Luckily we were not called upon by the Scientific Review Committee,” said a cheerful Vishal.

After this stage, one just needs to meet the judges to talk about their projects.

“Unlike here, there the judges already know your project and will therefore asks you questions about it rather than tell you to present it,” said Vishal.

The four admit to finding it nerve-racking at first especially against the high competition which saw them pitted against 1,700 young scientists selected from 419 affiliate fairs in 77 countries, regions and territories.

“We were a bit scared at first but the judges are really friendly so it went alright,” said Ramya.

Seeing that they are in their final year of high school, the students are not able to take part in ISEF again but hope to mentor other students hoping to scale those heights.

For more information about ISEF visit the Society for Science's website.

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