What drives innovation? Some trailblazers are driven by curiosity, others by the desire to solve an intractable problem. People like Maya Varma are motivated to help others.
The Desire to Make a Difference
When she was 14, a close friend was taken to the hospital with an asthma attack. Maya became curious about her friend and others with lung ailments. She learned that to measure airflow in the lungs and make a diagnosis, doctors use a spirometer, a device typically costing several thousand dollars. The WHO estimates 64 million people worldwide have some form of lung disease or COPD, which includes asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
In 2014, Maya Varma wrote on her blog:
“…total deaths from COPD are expected to increase by more than 30% within the next decade. Currently, it is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Alarmingly, almost 90% of all COPD deaths occur in developing nations, where the patients have no access to expensive spirometry equipment.”
Confidence Borne from Experience
If a low-cost diagnostic tool could be created, there was the potential to intervene early and save thousands of lives. Was that something she could design and build? She was only 15 years old and a high school sophomore. Still, from an early age, Maya had developed a keen interest in designing medical equipment. She’d entered her first science fair when she was just five years old and over the years won many honors.
“At that young age, I was introduced to the ideas of experimentation, failure, re-design, and occasionally, the priceless reward of seeing my projects actually work.”
Maya understood that experimentation and failure were part of the creative process, and she was able to marshall the courage to strike out for uncharted territory. With the help of a small grant from Johns Hopkins and a mentor advising her via email, she began to work on her project:
“I am working to design and engineer a portable, functioning low-cost spirometer that can be used to diagnose respiratory illnesses without the assistance of a qualified health care professional.”
Was it the exuberance of youth that kept her moving forward? Was her confidence borne from past experience designing science fair projects and winning so many awards? Or was it the desire to create a device that could help people with limited access to health care. Reading about her progress, you can see she was pragmatic and methodical in her approach, first solving one problem and then moving on to the next.
Form and Function
Maya worked on the project for two years, using a 3D printer, readily available electronic components and an app that she designed. The device she created can be used as a comprehensive diagnostic system, displaying its results when connected to a smart phone or tablet via Bluetooth wireless technology.
From Smithsonian Magazine:
Varma’s spirometer has three main components. First, there’s the shell, made on a 3D printer. When a person breathes into the shell, the rate of the airflow is measured by a pressure sensor as breath passes through a fine, stainless steel mesh.
The sensor converts the pressure change to digital data, which is monitored by a microcontroller and transmitted through a Bluetooth connection to a mobile app that Varma created.
The app computes lung performance and illustrates it on the person’s smartphone, taking into account age, gender, weight and other factors. It’s able to diagnose five different respiratory illnesses—COPD, asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and restrictive lung disease—and also has a disease management tool that allows patients to record their symptoms and test results, and track the severity of their illness.
Maya’s invention can help doctors diagnose and manage potentially fatal lung disease as well as hospital-grade machines that are simply too expensive for developing nations.
The cost of Maya’s device? About $35.
Intel’s “Junior Nobel Prize” for Innovation
In March, 2016, Maya’s project won Intel’s Science Talent Search Medal of Distinction for Innovation.
Here’s a fun feature story about Maya from CBS Station KPIX (a commercial is imbedded at the beginning and then the story starts):
Maya’s device is an extraordinary achievement – a creative and innovative response to solving a difficult problem. But more than that, it’s a testament to what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it – and when you have the skill, drive and confidence to overcome doubt and failure.
What advice does Maya have for the rest of us?
“It can get discouraging, but you can learn a lot from your failures. Always persevere.”
Thomas Edison said genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Yes, hard work and vision are key drivers of change. With all the advances in technology and the power of an unfettered imagination, it’s inspiring to see what one person, determined to make a difference, can accomplish. Kudos to Maya Varma – a highly creative innovator – and she’s only 17.