Kavita Shukla has won the Lemelson-MIT Program's fourth annual high school invention apprenticeship. The 12th grader from Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Md., developed a new food packaging paper with antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Shukla, 17, recently won a U.S. patent for the paper, which uses the seeds of fenugreek, an ancient Indian herb, to preserve food better than traditional packaging. The patent was her second; she obtained her first for "Smart Lid," a lab safety device for bottles containing hazardous materials, which she invented at the age of 13.
The Lemelson-MIT High School Invention Apprenticeship is designed to provide hands-on experience in a scientific and technological environment. The winning student is paired with a leading U.S. scientist, technologist, engineer or entrepreneur who serves as an "Invention Mentor." The student can choose to work on a project of his or her own design or assist in one of the mentor's projects.
Shukla's Invention Mentor for two weeks this month will be David Payton, one of the nation's leading authorities in autonomous systems and robotics. Payton is principal research scientist in the Information Sciences Lab at HRL Laboratories, an applied research center in electronics and information sciences in Malibu, Calif., that is jointly owned by Boeing, General Motors and Raytheon. Payton leads a project that develops software for controlling hundreds of tiny robots with the goal of making them work collectively, as a single entity, for tasks such as search and rescue or for helping soldiers clear and secure unfamiliar buildings.
Shukla has been developing her innovative fenugreek paper for the past five years. She first became interested in fenugreek after accidentally drinking contaminated water while visiting her grandparents in India. Her grandmother gave her a homegrown remedy of ground fenugreek seeds and, remarkably, she did not become ill.
Through her research, Shukla learned that fenugreek could not only remove toxic substances from aqueous solutions but could also inhibit bacterial and fungal growth. When she noticed spoiled strawberries her mother had bought, she wondered whether fenugreek might exhibit the same protective properties with fruit as she had experienced in India, perhaps in a packaging paper. She observed that food wrapped in fenugreek-treated paper lasted four to six weeks longer than food protected by traditional wrapping.
There are added advantages of using fenugreek: it's natural, non-toxic, biodegradable and easily produced in large quantities, making it ideal for developing countries.
"Since I was 12, I've thought that fenugreek could have applications in treating the many people who die or get sick as a result of waterborne diseases each year," Shukla said. "The most important thing I've learned thus far in my research is how little we know and how much remains to be learned."
In addition to her academic and scientific prowess, Shukla is also an entrepreneur. She is co-founder and CEO of SAFEH2O, a nonprofit, student-run water testing company that operates in partnership with W.R. Grace based in Columbia, Md. SAFEH2O has tested more than 450 residential water samples in the Baltimore region and alerted residents about problems such as excessive lead or impurities. Shukla has overseen virtually all aspects of the project, from marketing and finance to research and management duties.
Shukla will enter Harvard University, where she plans to major in biology and economics and pursue a career in research or medicine.
The winner of last year's Lemelson-MIT High School Invention Apprenticeship, Jordan Sand of Ellendale, N.D., spent three weeks at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 5, 2002.