Two Ann Arbor Students Named Among the Nation’s Top Young Scientists

Akshar and Anita working on their award-winning project. Image courtesy of Alexander Gaenko

Akshar Cowlagi and Anita Gaenko have been awarded the title, “Most Promising Middle School STEM Innovators” by the Broadcom Foundation and the Society for Science & the Public. They are among the top 30 finalists in the nation and will be competing for over $100,000 in awards mid-October. Here’s their inspiring story.

The Path to Joining the Top 30 Among the Nation

A passion for science led to Akshar and Anita’s friendship. Both have been actively involved in the Science Olympiad since elementary school. They both currently attend Huron High School. 

Anita took her passion to the Science and Engineering Fair of Metro Detroit for three years, from 6 to 8 grade. Her innovative science projects earned her multiple invitations to apply to the Broadcom MASTERS, an annual competition for the brightest young scientists in the nation. 

Last school year, during grade 8, Anita decided to team up with Akshar at the annual Metro Detroit Fair. They presented in March, a day before the state shutdown due to COVID, and earned first place and another invitation to apply to the Broadcom MASTERS. 

Because the Broadcom MASTERS is an individual competition, both applied separately, but supported one another in the application process. It was rigorous and multifaceted, including a detailed overview of their project, questions, and an essay.

In early September, they were both announced in the top 300. Then, on September 17th, both received a personalized phone call, congratulating them on their placement in the top 30 and the opportunity to compete in the Broadcom MASTERS in October. 

Not All That is Yellow is Turmeric

The project that earned them each a placement in this prestigious competition was the discovery that some companies who sell the spice, turmeric, mix it with toxic lead to give it a brighter yellow appearance. Taking her inspiration from the aphorism, “All that glitters is not gold,” Anita came with up the project title, “Not All That Is Yellow Is Turmeric: Designing Analytical Chemistry Methods and Photometric Circuitry to Detect Lead Chromate Adulteration of Turmeric.”  

Using both Anita’s passion for chemistry and programming, and Akshar’s talents with circuitry, they developed two creative methods for detecting adulteration in turmeric: with bleach or an enzyme. The bleaching method they discovered is particularly promising, as it is a test anyone can conduct in their own home to determine whether the turmeric they consume is contaminated. 

Both Anita and Akshar have family in India and consume turmeric often. That, coupled with a recent article Anita read in the Stanford News about contamination in turmeric in Bangladesh, inspired the project.

Akshar Anita Scientist
Akshar and Anita, ready to present at the Detroit Science Fair. Image courtesy of Alexander Gaenko

Ready to Compete in the 2020 Broadcom MASTERS

From October 16 through 21, both Anita and Akshar will compete in the Broadcom MASTERS’ first virtual competition. Pre-COVID, the two would have taken an all-expenses paid trip to the capital to compete. They will be competing against the brightest young scientists in the nation

The Broadcom Foundation’s mission is “to advance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education by funding research, recognizing scholarship and increasing opportunity.”

The competition includes both individual and team challenges. Over $100,000 in awards will be given out, including the coveted $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize.

The Future is Bright

When asked who inspires them, both Anita and Akshar were quick to reference family members. Anita’s parents both hold PhDs in Chemistry and inspire her daily, while Akshar cited his brother, Anirudh, as an inspiration as he begins his first year at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Anita shared that while Marie Curie is an obvious inspiration, “Women in STEM don’t have enough role models.”

Anita is certainly on a path to becoming a future scientist young women will look up to. Her particular passion is biomedical engineering. As for Akshar, he is passionate about all forms of science and dreams of one day attending MIT. 

Whatever the outcome of this year’s Broadcom MASTERS, both Anita and Akshar are an inspiration and will certainly change the world with their intellectual curiosity.

To learn more about the competition, please visit the Society for Science website and the Broadcom Foundation here.