Are geniuses born or are they made? It’s a question posed in new podcast series, “Decoding Genius”, which aims to discover exactly where this elusive ability comes from. Following six young wunderkinds who have all had significant breakthroughs in their respective fields — from the Sydneysider who invented a wheelchair controlled by thoughts, to the 10-year-old Canadian girl who developed the world’s first intelligent antibiotic. Below, three of these young geniuses — who have made a significant impact to the world of science despite still being under 30 — reveal the motivations behind their incredible discoveries and their hopes for how they will change the world.
The Development Of A Mind Controlled Wheelchair
Through his work redefining the boundaries between human and technological evolution, Dr. Jordan Nguyen is dedicated to helping improve the lives of those living with a disability. A self-described “futurist”, his childhood and teens had a huge influence on his later work. “I was always interested in sci-fi, technology and science,” said the 32-year-old Sydney-based biomedical engineer. “I grew up exposed to my dad — who designed robotics and artificial intelligence — and though I thought one day that I might work in it too, I also wanted to become a professional tennis player!”
While Jordan’s academic record during high school was “very average”, at the age of 21, a near miss would see the course of his life change forever. “I dove into a swimming pool and almost broke my neck,” he said. Confined to bed, and fearing permanent damage, Dr. Nguyen explains he found himself having to consider life without independence in mobility.
“It changed my perspective and I realised that I could help improve the lives of others and that’s when everything started to fall into place,” he said.
This turning point provided the genesis for what would become his defining breakthrough — a mind controlled wheelchair. Controlled by the user’s brain waves, the smart wheelchair — which took two years to develop — also utilises cameras to view its environment, providing additional navigation assistance to the operator. “The first time I got it working it was incredible,” Dr. Nguyen — who has been nominated for Australian of The Year 2017 — said. “I tested it out by myself in this big area and I got it to move forward and then it hit me: ‘I was doing this through my thoughts!’ It felt like something out of “X Men.”
“And in that moment I just wanted someone to be there to rejoice in it with me.” Dr. Nguyen said he chose that moment to call the person who was responsible putting him on this path — his father. “I was introduced to this world through my dad,” he said. “So I don’t take full credit for my discovery. I learnt what I learnt through my father. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him.”
An Antibiotic That Kills Pathogenic Bacteria
While a pre-teen tinkering around in their very own microbiology lab in their parent’s basement sounds like something from a 1980s movie, for Maya Burhanpurkar, it was a reality.
Conducting experiments in her spare time, at aged 10 she developed a drug that can specifically target and kill pathogenic bacteria while leaving the body’s own helpful bacteria unharmed. Essentially the world’s first ‘intelligent’ antibiotic.
Prototyping it two years later, Burhanpurkar was then prompted to kickstart a project — following the death of her grandfather from Alzheimer’s disease — which led to the discovery of new properties in two potential Alzheimer’s drugs.
“I haven’t experienced any stereotypical ‘eureka’ moments,” Burhanpurkar, now 17, said. “Its been more of a gradual process for me. But the driving force behind all my projects is my strong sense of curiosity and my desire to find answers.”
Supported by both her family and the small, rural Canadian community she grew up in, Burhanpurkar has already accumulated a number of impressive accolades, including being named as one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20. “These awards provide encouragement to start yet another journey on yet another project,” she said.
And despite accomplishing so much before even leaving her teens, the young scientist isn’t resting on her laurels. Since being offered a place at Harvard she has went on to become a keynote speaker at TEDx and produced an award-winning climate change documentary with astronaut Chris Hadfield, in addition to several research projects. “I have lots to look forward to over the next year!” she said.
A Method For Bringing Polluted Soils Back To Life
At the age of 15, Kelcie Miller-Anderson stopped to look at something most of us see every day — a dandelion poking up through a crack in the pavement. “It made me stop and think,” Miller-Anderson said. “How come dandelions had the ability to grow almost anywhere, in environments that exclude most other plants?”
After some research, Miller-Anderson, found that Dandelions excrete a fungus that helps recondition the soil to make it suitable for plant giving it the ability to grow almost anywhere. She then discovered a way to re-purpose the natural chemical process, allowing for the remediation of oil-filled, polluted soil.
While at school she was quiet about her extracurricular breakthrough — “I think growing up if you liked science you were automatically labelled as this nerd” she explains — now 22, she’s an advocate for young people embracing science.
“I am really committed to encouraging young people,” said the Canadian scientist. ‘Especially girls, not to be afraid to love science.” Seven years on from her discovery she’s now working on developing her remediation technology into a successful global business. But Miller-Anderson hopes that the most important legacy from the discovery is the ability of her story to inspire.
“There is this idea that significant discoveries are going to come from senior scientists with numerous degrees, not from the minds of curious kids,” she said. “Young people have the ability to look at things in unique and creative ways, I’m proof that not all solutions need to complex. Sometimes the best solutions have already been created by nature, you just need to look for them.”