Interview with Naomi Shah, scientist and Davidson Fellow

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As a baby, Naomi Shah’s very first word was “why,” and her insatiable curiosity has only grown since then. Today the 17-year-old is an innovative scientist who deals everyday with words most of us will never comprehend. Her passion? Making the air we breathe cleaner, safer and less allergenic. (Now that’s a breath of fresh air!) Naomi’s work and research won her age division in the Google Science Fair and have also earned her the prestigious title of 2012 Davidson Fellow. Find out more about this brainiac in our Q&A below:

What sparked your interest in science?

Naomi: I have an older brother and we would go to the local science museum all the time; I was always drawn to the chemistry and physics labs to see how things work. Ever since kindergarten, I’ve been drawn to natural sciences, especially biochemistry.

When did it turn into more than just curiosity and start to be a viable career path?

Naomi: I started indoor air quality research. Back in sixth grade, I saw that both my dad and brother suffered from chronic allergy symptoms that persisted year-round—well past pollen season. I knew there was something exacerbating these symptoms. On the EPA website I came across this one statistic that indoor air quality is one of top five environmental risks and causes 1.2 million deaths in a year. That struck a chord because I’d seen my dad and brother go through the same symptoms, so I decided to test the air quality difference in home with and without an air filter installed in the HVAC system. It was a simple experiment with basic variables—how can we stop these pollutants? It sparked my interest in the field of environmental health and became the basis of six years of my research. In middle school, I was able to reach a more sophisticated level with my research and try to change people’s mindset about the environment they’re living in.

You embarked on a pretty remarkable project. Tell us about it!

Naomi: It has three phases—the first phase was a study with 103 human subjects that measured indoor air quality and lung health. We analyzed a lot of data over four million air samples taken from their homes and workplaces. With that, I found that the two largest contributors were dust particles and dust mites and total volatile organic compounds. They’re present in every household because of candles, cleaners, etc. and are pollutants that can lodge themselves in the lungs of asthmatic patients and create those symptoms.

In the second phase, I wanted to put the data I collected into a model that could be used by doctors and environmental specialists. Current models predict a person’s lung health based on age gender and height, which confused me because I see a big correlation between environmental factors and lung health. Why weren’t they part of the model? I used linear aggression techniques to add in the factor of environmental pollutants, which creates more accurate results. I presented my model at a conference and got a lot of positive feedback from professionals in the field; I hope to patent the model as well.

The last phase centers on a solution to the indoor pollutants. I started coming up with ideas to remove these pollutants from the root before they enter the home. The idea is to design to integrate a filter into the existing HVAC system of buildings. Right now, it’s in the prototype stage.

That must have taken so much time and dedication. How do you manage it all on top of school?

Naomi: Most of my time outside of school and homework is spent doing research. The EPA website is one of the most visited pages on our home computer! Especially over summers, I’ll spend 20-40 hours in the lab. It’s almost like a full-time job, but I enjoy it so it doesn’t feel like a lot of work. Most of the preliminary time goes into research or doing modeling andanalysis of data. I started to embark on this project independently and collaborated with professionals in field to get access to resources.

You probably needed access to some pretty sophisticated resources to properly do your research. How did you make that happen?

Naomi: Initially, since I’m only in high school, I was met with skepticism about whether I could use the monitors correctly. I cold-called a lot of different companies and found one that was willing to donate monitors and give me access to the calibration lab. That allowed me to use monitors that were accurate and devices used to measure lung health, all provided free ofcost. I was really lucky to find other companies and corporations who were willing to donate after I presented to them. Also, all of my test subjects came from the Portland metro area—volunteers, friends, clubs.

You’ve presented at conferences such as TedX, National Environmental Health Conference and Better Air, Better Homes. Do you have any tips on public speaking?

Naomi: Over the years, I’ve learned that a lot of people when they give science talks it goes over people’s head and doesn’t sink in, so I try to create awareness through making it relatable. I’ll ask, “Has your husband or wife ever had these symptoms?” and it makes them think what pollutants might be in their home. It’s really effective. Also, keeping it short and simple. People are more likely to pay attention if it’s not a long rambling speech—most of my talks are between 5-10 minutes. Make people aware of the problem and that they can make a difference.

Part of your progress has also depended on obtaining donations and support from major companies and others in the field. Do you have any tips on getting the resources you need?

Naomi: Be passionate. When people see a passion for something, it’s hard to say no. When I’ve presented, I’ve shown a sense of compassion for air quality research and science in general. I’m going into environmental health research, so it was crucial to find people willing to invest and let me borrow their monitors. Passion is the most important thing to show if you’re trying to get help from someone else.

What are your thoughts on the stereotype that there aren’t many women in your field?

Naomi: I’ve heard science and tech is a male-dominant field, but I feel like the tides are turning. We see more women entering the field and it feels good to be part of that change. I want to inspire other girls to enter this field; there should not be any gender barriers to any career path or education. I’ve started a couple mentorship programs: one is for science research, and one is for computing and technology and getting middle schoolgirls to enter these fields. I really hope girls get exposed to them at a younger age and see how cool it is to be a part of it.

Any advice for those girls who want to follow in your footsteps?

Naomi: If you’re interested in science and medicine, figure out what you’re really passionate about. Once I found a niche, I found the time flew by. Find a topic that you’re really interested in—whether it’s medicine, environmental sciences, plant sciences, behavioral sciences or computing and technology—and do the research to see if that’s something you’d want to spend your time doing.

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