Since creating her first water purification system at only 14 years old, Deepika has received a number of prizes for her work.
At 17, our youngest face, Deepika is working to overcome the global water crisis with a solar powered device of her own invention.
Originally from New Hampshire, and now a freshman at Harvard, Deepika was inspired to design a device for disinfecting contaminated water on a visit to India, when she was only 14. There she witnessed children drinking dirty water from a stagnant pool.
“I immediately began to research more about the water crisis, and what was being done to help solve it. Using the internet as a resource, I learned that currently in developing countries, solar disinfection (SODIS) was used to purify water. However, SODIS alone is very slow, and can take up to two days to purify water. I then researched how to accelerate the SODIS process, and learned about photocatalysis, which is the basis of my project idea.”
Deepika’s interest in science began as a small child. “I would always ask questions about the world around me. My parents would often give me scientific explanations when answering these questions, and that sparked my interested in science.” She was inspired by the idea that science wasn’t just a list of facts, but something that could be used to solve global problems. If she wasn’t a chemist, she says, she would still be finding a way to use science to help revolutionise the world.
Problem solving with chemistry
In 2012 she entered the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, which she won with her water purification system. The invention involves a photocatalyst, a material that accelerates a reaction in the presence of light. Deepika’s catalyst is a composite that can remove bacteria and organics from contaminated water, and is safe, sustainable, cost-effective, and eco-friendly, meaning it could have real possibilities in improving access to clean water in the developing world. Designing her photocatalyst came with plenty of difficulties.
“The biggest challenge I had to overcome was trying to find a binding agent for my composite. I overcame this obstacle by trying several different eco-friendly epoxies and sprays before coming across the perfect binding agent – cement.”
The composite also contains titania, zinc oxide and hollow glass microspheres.
Three years later, Deepika improved her methods with a new photocatalytic composite made from sand, titania, Portland cement and silver nitrate. This system was even more effective than her first one: filtering contaminated water through the composite, followed by 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight, resulted in inactivation of 100% of coliform bacteria in the sample. This project won her the 2014 United States Stockholm Junior Water Prize, giving her the opportunity to travel to Stockholm and compete at the International Stockholm Junior Water Prize. In 2015 she was named one of Forbes’ 2015 30 Under 30 in energy.
Overcoming barriers to diversity
Deepika says that whilst there is still a gender imbalance in the scientific community, she knows that “the female scientific community is strong, and will continue to work to overcome any barriers they are faced with.” She also points out how hard it can be for younger people to be taken seriously by the rest of the chemistry community and believes there need to be more programs for young scientists, to promote diversity and encourage them to share ideas. “In order to promote diversity, we need to rid of this ‘scientist stereotype’, and show people that a scientist isn’t just one who mixes chemicals all day; a scientist is one who loves learning and is curious about the world.”
Deepika wants to inspire anyone who is considering a career in chemistry to follow their dream and inspire others.
“I would encourage you to continue to pursue your passion! To those who may be under-represented in the chemical sciences, I hope that you will continue to work hard to inspire future young scientists.”
Words by Deepika Kurup and Elisabeth Ratcliffe
Images courtesy of Deepika Kurup
Published January 2016