(October 21, 2022) While her classmates were busy finishing up studying their syllabus for class XII, Sahithi Pingali was working day and night on her research paper, ‘An Innovative Crowdsourcing Approach to Monitoring Freshwater Bodies’, which she had to present at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) – 2017. After months of extensive research on various lakes of Bengaluru, where she lived, the young innovator presented the paper to a committee of five members and was awarded second prize, and three special awards in the Earth and Environment Sciences category.
However, that was not it. The now 20-year-old Sahithi also received an unexpected award for her incredible research. The committee decided to give a minor planet somewhere in the Milky Way the name ‘Pingali Sahithi’.
Currently studying at the prestigious Stanford University in the USA, the self-taught coder is the founder of WaterInsights – which is an innovative award-winning citizen science project for freshwater monitoring. People can use WaterInsights’ testing kit to monitor the water in their school, home, or neighborhood creek. “To me at least, the sheer gravity of the environmental problems we face is something I can’t ignore. I’ve lived in the scenic suburbs of the US, and later in the city of Bengaluru. I think the contrast between those two settings made me extra aware of these problems — our cities are dying, sucked dry, and choked with pollution. So, I researched the various factors that contribute to the pollution of our water bodies through surveys, sessions with experts, and interviewing people who live and work around the lakes,” the young innovator had once told Deccan Chronicle during an interview.
With her roots in Andhra Pradesh, Sahithi lived in New York for the first eight years of her life. The family moved back to Bengaluru in the early 2000s, and that is when she started working toward improving the water quality of the lakes in Bengaluru. When she was just 15, the innovator crowdsourced funds to conduct a study on ten of the most polluted lakes in Bengaluru. However, her first project didn’t succeed without hiccups. While she was looking for a facility to conduct her research, she approached several professors at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) to let her access their laboratories. Although most of her initial emails went unanswered, she received a condescending response from one of the professors, which read, “You’re simply not old enough for such lab work. I’d rather recommend you a list of books to read.”
Far from being discouraged, Sahithi wrote to several other labs, and went on to do internships at various prestigious institutions including the Ecological Sciences Center at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and the Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment group at Arizona State University, Tempe.
However, books and research are not the only avenues that interest this bright girl. “I’m a Bharatnatyam dancer and I play the veena. I also love to read and write. In my reading, I always make sure to have variety. I alternate between fiction and non-fiction, depending on what I’m in the mood to read. I think there’s never much trouble in making time for the things you love doing,” she had said in her interview with Deccan Chronicle.
Soon after her research paper ‘An Innovative Crowdsourcing Approach to Monitoring Freshwater Bodies’ won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the innovator didn’t waste any time in developing a user-friendly platform to make her technology available to the common people. “I was inspired by the way that citizens would step up to take responsibility for the lakes that they lived near and work to revive and protect them. However, I was also frustrated by a few things – how most of the action came from a very small number of people,” she told Discover Magazine during a recent interaction, adding, “I wanted to help more people understand water pollution issues and get involved in taking hands-on action. I also wanted to make it much easier for citizen activists to generate data about local water bodies so they didn’t have to wait for the limited pool of experts to carry out testing. So, we made it possible for any citizen to monitor the water in their home or local environment, and then gather that data in a dynamically updated Water Health Map of the World.”
The Stanford student is currently doing the first beta test of the samples she received from the Bengaluru citizens. The innovator is also working on creating an educational curriculum for students who want to fight for the environment. “We’re going to use the results and feedback from this test to make our system as accurate and user-friendly as possible. Then, we’re going to make test kits available for any citizen scientist to order online. We’re also working to create an educational curriculum to go with the kits so that students across the world can do this as a classroom activity,” she said.
- Follow Sahithi Pingali on LinkedIn