Why do so many people die of viruses each year? wondered then-fourteen-year-old Anika Chebrulo. While recovering in bed from her own severe case of flu in 2019, the 8th grader from Frisco, Texas decided to learn more. Her question led to the discovery of a possible therapy for COVID-19.
Learning and Entry
Once recovered, she immersed herself in researching influenza, the 1919 Flu Pandemic, and the history of pandemics and drug discoveries. She was shocked to discover that about half a million people still die from influenza each year worldwide.
Fascinated, she used this topic for a school project. During this investigation, Anika learned to use her computer to power her biological research through the use of databases, graphics, and simulation tools. Her school project succeeded so well she entered it in the 3M Discovery Education Young Scientist Challenge (YSC).
Anika was pleasantly surprised when the judges selected her as one of the YSC finalists. The contest provided a mentor to each finalist, and everyone would have the summer to finish up their research before the finals in Minnesota in the fall. Anika and her 3M mentor carefully planned out her summer research. Following her mentor’s advice, Anika shifted from studying influenza to studying COVID-19. This new virus, 10 times more lethal than the common flu viruses, was rapidly emerging as a global pandemic and seemed out of control. She decided to tackle this new big problem and use the skills she learned in her earlier school project. “I was amazed at how you can use computational methods to identify potential antivirals against viruses and pandemics.” She spent the entire summer before the 3M finals on her computational research.
Eureka and Winning 3M
At the end of a long busy summer and much consultation with her mentor, Anika presented her research to the 3M Discovery Education YSC judges. Her fast-paced and confident presentation described her idea and her research process.
She was careful to point out the need for verification and further testing needed before the molecule she identified could become a medical therapy. After her presentation, the judges peppered her with detailed questions to test the depth of her knowledge about medical research. At the final dinner, the judges announced Anika as the Young Scientist of the Year.
Now Back Home
Anika plans to use part of her $25,000 prize money to further her research. She is eager to collaborate with other scientists on further development of a treatment for COVID-19. After college, she wants to conduct medical research and teach at a university.
Science captured her interest from an early age. One of her first memories was making Epsom salts crystals with her grandfather. Over the summer following her win, Anika and her brother started a nonprofit called Academy Aid to “promote more STEM learning for underrepresented children who don’t have the same opportunities that I did.”
Anika names Marie Curie as an exceptional woman in science she admires because Curie triumphed over marginalization in the male-dominated world of science. “Being a woman in science is not easy,” she says, “because many people look down on us and think we’re not good enough just because we’re females.” Anika is helping smash that false and damaging stereotype.
Next week’s post will recount the how Anika’s research uncovered this promising molecule for treating COVID-19.
Read more about students like Anika Chebrolu who are changing the world in my new book Teen Innovators: Nine Young People Engineering a Better World with Creative Inventions.