Surabhi Mundada’s journey as a scientist officially began in fourth grade when she studied the physics of pendulums. Since then, every year of her life has been characterized by a scientific undertaking.
In fifth grade, she researched the effects of greywater on the environment. In sixth grade, Mundada studied the physics of wind chimes, combining two of her greatest passions: science and music. And as a seventh grader, Mundada embarked on what she calls a “transitional project,” which would fundamentally change the way she thought about science.
This project involved researching the antibacterial properties of honey and its potential as a medicine for cough and other common ailments. This was a first for Mundada, because it didn’t take place only in the vacuum of the science fair circuit – it had real potential for improving people’s quality of life. “That was when I realized that science has an application and that I could be using it to benefit others,” says Mundada.
In ninth grade, Mundada again continued her “theme of natural treatments,” as well as her theme of helping others. Using her biology teacher Ed Bassett’s lab, she researched candida fungal infections. People with immunodeficiencies are especially susceptible to such infections and Mundada’s work centered on developing a natural treatment for them. In researching, “I would stay for long hours after school, and I used over a thousand petri dishes,” Mundada recalls. “It was really interesting, and definitely another transitional project for me.”
Because of her work on this issue, Mundada was able to participate in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). “This was the most eye-opening experience,” she raves. “You get to see young scientists from all over the world! I looked at everybody’s boards and thought, ‘It’s amazing what people can do.’” For Mundada, seeing the real-world applications of her fellow competitors’ projects was the most inspiring part of the fair. “People were doing things on such a big scale,” she says, “and it made me realize that really, nothing is too hard.”
This experience motivated Mundada to use her scientific talent to help people again as a sophomore. This time, her work took her in a totally new direction: computer programming. “Engineering was something that was completely new to me,” says Mundada. But when she noticed people in her life suffering from tremors (uncontrollable movement of the hands), she admits a solution “just sort of popped into my head: why don’t we make a glove?”
At the time, there were virtually no existing techniques for controlling tremors like those associated with Parkinson’s disease, aside from medicines with side effects. Mundada envisioned a solution that would be cost-effective and accessible, and would improve the quality of life for everyone suffering with tremors. She dove headfirst into the production of a mechanical glove, called MyGlove, that assisted with stabilizing the hands. She learned how to program, and work with sensors. She developed and presented several prototypes at science fairs (including ISEF once again), to the glowing feedback of judges.
“It was the most rewarding when I would hear one of the judges say something like, ‘Oh, this could help my husband,’” says Mundada. “Realizing the actual positive impacts that science can have is really incredible.”
Now, as a beloved senior at Olympia High School, Mundada is continuing her work with tremors and other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She is expanding her programming repertoire to include soft robots – devices made out of silicone. Her latest undertaking is the development of a system that could enable earlier and more accurate diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Currently, explains Mundada, symptoms of Parkinson’s usually precede diagnosis by a few years. This is because it is hard for patients to remember their symptoms at 6-month checkups, and also because the diagnostic criteria is pretty subjective. “It’s qualitative,” says Mundada, “meaning it’s hard to measure. I wanted a way to make it quantitative, so patients could report their symptoms more easily and get more reliable results.”
So Mundada is developing an armband that can be worn to measure early symptoms of Parkinson’s, including tremor, muscle rigidity, and a loss of range of motion for the arm. She is also creating an app that pairs with the armband. The app is designed to be user-friendly and to sync data with the cloud so patients can record their symptoms easily. In the future, Mundada is looking towards refining the armband to detect an even wider array of symptoms.
Mundada’s genuine humility and passion for helping others is not only evident in her scientific achievements–it extends to all areas of her life. She is an active member of Olympia High School’s dotDIVA club, and notes that “encouraging women and kids in STEM” is really important to her. “Even in STEM classes at OHS, you can see a definite gender gap – there are still more guys than girls,” says Mundada. She credits early exposure to science with getting her interested in the field, and wants to pay this forward to younger generations.
Mundada has only just begun her scientific career, and her inventions are already making a positive impact on many people’s lives. She will continue her education in the fall at Stanford University and will continue pursuing science.
In the meantime, her community at Olympia High School is honored to have had such a courageous classmate, able to imagine and enact solutions to worldwide problems.