The winner of the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge is a 14-year-old girl, and she made a fantastic discovery. Anika Chebrolu, from Frisco, Texas, landed the coveted winning spot in the nation’s top middle school science competition, and her research might further a drug therapy against COVID-19.
She competed against nine other excellent science students from across the country, and from October 12-13 they participated in a virtual competition and presentation of findings. Chebrolu received a $25,000 cash prize from 3M and Discovery Education, the prestigious title of “America’s Top Young Scientist,” and a special destination trip. Chebrolu, the two runners up, and their mentors also got the exciting opportunity to ring the New York Stock Exchange Closing Bell in a virtual event on October 15.
Teaming Kids with 3M Scientists
The participants were each partnered with a 3M scientist for a three-month period, working on various projects and experiments. Chebrolu’s mentor, Dr. Mahfuza Ali — a 3M corporate scientist in the materials resource division and a recent Carlton Society inductee — helped her both begin her original experiment and then pivot to a new goal once the pandemic hit.
“Being able to work with a real scientist is a dream come true!” Chebrolu tells Parentology. “My mentor, Dr. Mahfuza Ali, has been extremely helpful in this process of innovating and further advancing my project. By working with Dr. Ali, I was able to experience firsthand how scientists work through and solve their problems in their field of science.”
Chebrolu originally wanted to explore influenza, but then, the pandemic struck.
“Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit us, and through discussions with Dr. Ali, I switched gears and focused my project to target the Spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” she says. “Without Dr. Ali’s help and guidance, my project would not be where it is today. This has been an exciting opportunity of a lifetime.”
Discovery Might Limit COVID-19 Virus
Viruses cause illness by grabbing onto human cells. Chebrolu found a molecule that hinders this process.
“The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is responsible for COVID-19, is covered with what is called the ‘Spike protein,’ which plays an essential role in the infection process of the virus. I discovered a molecule that can attach to the Spike protein on the SARS-CoV-2 virus and potentially change its shape and function. If you change the shape of the Spike protein, you can prevent the virus from being able to grab onto human cells and reduce or treat further infection in a person’s body,” Chebrolu said.
Her discovery is key for developing new drug therapies to fight the virus. Below is a video of her project.
Discovery Education & the Power of STEM
The 3M Young Scientist Challenge is in its 13th year. “For over a decade, Discovery Education and 3M have shared a commitment to empowering young people to bring the power of STEM learning to life,” Lori McFarling, president of Corporate & Community Partnerships at Discovery Education, said in a press release. “All of this year’s participants demonstrated their deep engagement in these critical disciplines, and we are so pleased to have supported the 2020 participants in their endeavors.”
Previous challenge winners have gone on to give TED Talks, file patents, found nonprofits, make the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, and exhibit at the White House Science Fair. These young innovators have also been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, Business Insider, and on national television programs such as Good Morning America and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Chebrolu’s scientific interest runs in the family; her grandfather was a chemistry professor.
“From a young age he instilled in me a sense of curiosity and passion for science. He taught me about the periodic table and would do fun science experiments with me,” she says.
Chebrolu is already keeping up with her fellow challenge winners: she established a non-profit organization called AcademyAid. “It strives to help underrepresented students receive a well-rounded education by encouraging STEM and providing supplies to underfunded schools in India. I plan to use part of the funds I won from the competition to further fund and build AcademyAid,” Chebrolu says.
Chebrolu encourages other young science students to keep striving.
“Science is the basis of life and the entire universe. Always remember to never stop asking questions and always have trust and belief in yourself,” she says. “Make sure to jump at any opportunity you see with your best abilities, as you never know where you could end up. Finally, never give up! Sometimes, it feels like science is trying to make this hard for us, but it actually is just giving us more ideas and information to help us continue our work. You can do this!”