Teen’s ‘breathtaking’ device makes science fair history

When Maya Varma saw her friend suffer a severe asthma attack a few summers ago, she learned a lot about diagnostic spirometers, medical devices that measured and helped monitor her friend’s lung health.

But as soon as Maya discovered these lifesaving tools cost hundreds of dollars, she went to work. “I just felt there was something I could do about this,” the 17-year-old from San Jose, California, said.

With a 3-D printer, free, open-source software and a smartphone, Maya created a device that accurately diagnoses five different lung conditions, including asthma. The price? $35.

President Obama singled out Maya’s invention earlier in April during the 2016 White House Science Fair. “Her goal was to use smartphone technology to make diagnostic tests for all kinds of diseases a lot cheaper,” the president said.

How does it work?

Maya’s spirometer has three main parts: a 3-D printed “shell,” a sensor and a mobile phone app. When someone breathes into the shell, data is picked up by the sensor and information about lung function displays in the app.

In addition to asthma, Maya’s creation can diagnose emphysema, chronic bronchitis, restrictive lung disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which affects an estimated 64 million people and is the world’s fourth leading cause of death.

“My aspiration is not only to create the next big thing in my field one day,” Maya said, “‘but also to make it accessible to more than a privileged few in the world.”

Next generation of female scientists

Maya’s new tool earned her a first-place prize of $150,000 at the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search, one of the United States’ most prestigious science fairs for secondary school students. Over its 75-year history, the contest has seen 12 of its participants later win Nobel Prizes.

And for the first time, a majority of this year’s 40 finalists were young women, like Maya.

Traditionally, women around the world have been underrepresented in higher-paying science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, particularly in computer sciences. But that’s starting to change.

“We’ve got to get more of our young women and minorities into science and technology, engineering and math and computer science,” President Obama said at the White House Science Fair.

“We’re not going to succeed if we got half the team on the bench,” he said. “Especially when it’s the smarter half of the team.”