Only a month ago, Mohammed Suhail turned 18. At an age where most students are busy deciding which career to pursue or the college they want to study at, this teen from Mangaluru is already a researcher, entrepreneur, and a recipient of the prestigious Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya of Bal Puraskar (National Child Awards For Exceptional Achievement that he was awarded recently.
He received this honour for developing a non-invasive and predictive method of diagnosing pre-symptomatic Protein-Energy Malnutrition (PEM) with paper strips costing only Rs 2!
Confused what PEM is? Well, to put it simply, it is a form of malnutrition arising from lack of dietary protein.
The Better India (TBI) got in touch with the Mangaluru teen to know more about his journey to this innovation.
Growing up in Srirangapatna in Mandya district, his parents’ huge archive of books on various genres opened up a Pandora’s Box for Suhail at a young age.
A bookworm at heart, he claims to read one book a day!
The youngster who calls himself a ‘polymath’ had been an all-rounder—adept at yoga, singing, writing, karate, and even chess.
His interest in science began after he started attending exhibitions around Sriangapatna and later Mangaluru, where he would carefully analyse the working of prototypes on display, and question the makers until his curiosity was appeased.
He adds how he delved deeper into science when his parents decided to gift him a laptop and got an internet connection. The Gen Z student regards the internet as one of his most prominent teachers.
He was only 14 when he developed a project called “Let’s Walk to Generate Electricity”, where he built a working model of a piezo-electric 40×40 cm tile which would generate electricity when people step on it.
What is Piezoelectricity? It is the electric charge that accumulates in certain solid materials if physical pressure is exerted on them.
He installed the piezo-tile at Srirangapatna’s historical Gumbaz—the final resting place of Tipu Sultan. The monument attracts hundreds of people each day, and the electricity generated from Suhail’s project lit up parts of the memorial.The experiment proved that these panels could be used in public places like malls, railways stations, or stadiums to generate electricity.
How did the model work?
Suhail started by creating a panel using two plywood boards measuring one-and-a-half sq ft each. He placed piezoelectric transducer cells on one of the ply boards in a matrix form and wired 40 transducer cells parallel to each other.
He then covered the first plywood board with the second one.
“When you walk on the piezo-electric panel, the transducers placed inside the mat lose their shape and regain. In the process, flowing electrons generate electricity, which can be stored in a battery attached and then used for different purposes,” says Suhail.
One such panel can help save up to 400 units of power per year and last up to nine years. The process of manufacturing the panel and its maintenance is cost-effective.
Regardless to say, this experiment moved on to win more than 50 awards.
The Malnutrition project
Coming to the project that has been turning heads, Suhail says it all started on a dull Friday evening in 2017.
He narrates the story:
“I was bored, kept watching cat videos that evening. When Swastik, (his project partner) told me about the opening speaker at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), Dr Manu Prakash. I put his name in the search bar on YouTube. Throughout his TED Talk, there wasn’t a moment when I wanted to pause the video or look away. His inventions and discoveries like turning a low-cost material like paper to something much more beyond than a canvas splattered with ink blew me away. His vision is to make science affordable to all inspired me,” beams the awestruck teen.
And so Dr. Manu Prakash, through the screen of the virtual world became their Dronacharya.
To give you a brief profile of Dr Prakash, he is a reputed biophysicist, also an assistant professor of bio-engineering at the Stanford University, USA. He took the scientific community by storm by developing a pocket-sized paper microscope which he has named “Foldscope”—a printable, use-and-throw microscope made almost entirely from a sheet of paper and is powerful enough to detect a malaria parasite in a drop of blood, but costs just 50 cents.
He is a pioneer of ‘frugal science’ where he invents high-tech tools using inexpensive materials. While many of these tools address complicated problems, their low cost and simple designs make them accessible to all!
What followed was a Google search on Top 10 Killing Diseases in India. The commonly known ones popped up like Alzheimer’s and Heart Attack among others. He scrolled through the websites until he clicked on the World Health Organisation’s page on Malnutrition. The figures rattled him.
One in five children in the world is malnourished. He went on to read that while the number of children suffering from malnutrition in India is in lakhs, it affects millions across the globe.
An estimated $3 billion is spent on taking measures to fight malnutrition and the WHO aims to eradicate malnutrition globally by 2025.
His research further helped him understand how, apart from growth monitoring, measuring the circumference of the arm or a protein test that required drawing blood, non-invasive low-cost tools for presymptomatic diagnosis of malnutrition were non-existent.
Considering how most children from lower socio-economic backgrounds suffered from malnutrition, the protein test was not affordable to all. And so Suhail and Swasthik spent five hours discussing how they could they develop a device that would eliminate the use of syringes and the many complicated steps.
Dr Prakash’s story inspired Suhail to experiment with paper to diagnose pre-symptomatic PEM. While scanning research papers and journals, he observed how every child does not have the same level of malnutrition in her body. And therefore based on the protein level, a different kind of diet has to be administered to them.
But the Central Government in India recommended the same standard diet for all the children suffering from malnutrition. It was vital for him to develop a paper-based tool that could predict the level of protein in a child’s blood at an advanced stage.
“For the longest time, a blood test has been the only way to identify malnutrition. The test was not only expensive for families below the poverty line but also added to the environmental burden, as the medical waste is not disposed of properly. So I decided to use a paper to conduct these tests.”
How does it work?
Christened the ‘Ultra low-cost presymptomatic paper diagnostic and nutrition tool for PEM,’ the process begins with taking the child’s saliva sample on the paper.
If the colour of the paper changes, it is an indicator that the child lacks proteins and nutrients. Later, Suhail also developed a mobile app for the process where the paper can be scanned to show the percentage of protein or the level of malnutrition. The biomarker in saliva is correlated to the level of protein in one’s blood.
“The method costs Rs 2 and takes merely two minutes. It is a breakthrough in terms of cost and results in zero biomedical waste,” adds Suhail.
The pilot was conducted on patients at the Yenepoya Research centre and found to be successful.
“This breakthrough wouldn’t be possible without the support of Dr.Sindu Priya, Dr.Rekha PD, Dr.Sudhakar Prasad and Sonia Joseph from Yenepoya University, Dr.Rohan from Kanachur Institute of Medical sciences and Dr. Srinivas Hotha from IISER,Pune. I want to extend my deepest gratitude to my project partner Swasthik Padma, my parents and relatives,” beams Suhail
When I ask him if he wants to commercialise the tool, the youngster quickly quips, “I want it to be freely available for the society so we can tackle the issue of malnutrition together by joining hands. It is my way of giving back to my country.”
Acknowledging the budding scientist’s inventions, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, along with International Astronomical Union named a minor star after Suhail at the Intel ISEF 2018 held at Pittsburgh in May.
He concludes with a motivational message:
“Don’t chase short term goals. Set your eyes on a goal and work for it like you would 30 years from now. I did not work on my project as a Class 12 student, but as Suhail, 30 years from now. I envisioned myself as a successful innovator and a faculty member at the Harvard like Dr Manu Prakash. Don’t be dependent on external motivation. The drive to work hard and smart and make quick decisions has to come from inside you. If you do that, nothing can stop you from becoming the best version of yourself.”
If this story inspired you, get in touch with Md Suhail at email@example.com
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)