Bridging the gap between accessible healthcare and disadvantaged communities is just one of the things Maya Varma is extremely passionate about. With her lifelong love for engineering and building new devices, she has successfully created affordable technology to help improve the diagnosis of five pulmonary diseases. She has won first place in the Innovation category at Intel STS for her inventions, as well as presented the technology at the 2016 White House Science Fair. Maya’s commitment to furthering affordable and accessible healthcare technology will surely change our world.
College: Stanford University
Expected Graduation: Spring 2020
What do you consider your greatest achievements thus far?
Over the past seven years, I have worked tirelessly to create new inventions to help improve technology and save lives, submitting my creations to regional, state, and national science fairs every year. I enjoy using my engineering skills to devise innovative solutions to problems affecting disadvantaged communities, specifically in the field of healthcare, and over the past three years, I designed an inexpensive pulmonary function analyzer for the diagnosis of five pulmonary illnesses: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Asthma, Emphysema, Chronic Bronchitis and Restrictive Lung Disease.
Over 600 million people worldwide suffer from COPD, and over 90 percent of deaths from pulmonary illnesses occur in developing nations due to lack of access to expensive diagnostic equipment. Pulmonary illnesses are detected and monitored by a device called the spirometer, which measures lung function by measuring the volume of air that a patient expels after maximum inspiration. The cost of current spirometry equipment used in hospitals for testing can range from $1000 to $4000, which is beyond the means of healthcare facilities in many developing nations.
With the increasing proliferation of smartphones across the world, low-cost smartphone-based medical devices are now an attractive alternative to traditional custom-made medical equipment, especially in developing countries. I set out to design a smartphone-based low-cost full-function pulmonary function analyzer that can be used to measure lung function and diagnose various respiratory illnesses. The device can be used at healthcare facilities in poor countries, providing the same functionality of high-end spirometers at a fraction of the cost.
Designing and engineering this system has been one of my greatest achievements thus far. I developed a working prototype of the low-cost pulmonary function analyzer, reducing the cost of the diagnostic system to only $35. In 2016, I was recognized as the first place winner in the Innovation category at Intel STS. I later had the opportunity to present this work at the 2016 White House Science Fair, where President Obama recognized my work in his address. In addition, this project has been recognized by the Google Science Fair, Intel ISEF, NBC, The Huffington Post, Teen Vogue and Popular Mechanics. It was also named by the World Bank as an “open and accessible technology that will change the world.”
NBC reporter Garvin Thomas aptly summarized my work as a combination of “biology, technology and compassion,” and it is this passion and ambition that I hope to bring with me in my future endeavors as an engineer.
What was your overall goal for creating more affordable options for medical devices?
My overall goal for creating more affordable options for medical devices was to help bring diagnostic devices to the people who need them most. My pulmonary function analyzer targets patients with asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), restrictive lung disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. 600 million people worldwide have COPD, which is currently the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. More than 300 million people in the world have asthma, and as many as 14 percent of the world’s children had asthmatic symptoms last year.
Alarmingly, almost 90 percent of all pulmonary illness-related deaths occur in developing nations, where patients have no access to expensive diagnostic and monitoring equipment. As a result, 75 percent of those affected remain untreated. Modern spirometers, which are the medical devices used to diagnose these illnesses, are used only in doctors' offices and can cost between $1000 and $4000; as a result, most spirometers are beyond the means of healthcare facilities in developing nations. By designing a low-cost system for diagnosing these illnesses, I intend to help individuals who cannot afford access to expensive medical equipment. Although these diseases are not curable, early detection and treatment can slow their progression.
What/who inspires you to work on these types of life-changing projects?
I have been fascinated with microcontrollers from a young age. I started working with my first Arduino board in sixth grade. When I was in eighth grade, I created a novel and cost-effective foot neuropathy analyzer to enable early detection of neuropathy in diabetic patients. This project won the $2500 grand prize at the California State Science Fair among other awards. While presenting the foot neuropathy analyzer at the fair, I found out that one of the judges who came to see my project was a diabetic neuropathy patient. This made me realize that the work I did primarily for fun could have a real impact on people’s lives.
The success of the foot neuropathy monitor project made me realize that it is possible to develop cheap devices that can replace some of the expensive diagnostic equipment currently used in medicine. I came up with the idea for this pulmonary function analyzer when one of my close friends had an asthma attack and was taken to the hospital. She later told me that the doctors used a spirometer to check her lung function. My research on lung function testing exposed me to the plight of millions in the world who remain untreated of respiratory diseases due to the high cost of diagnostic equipment and motivated me to begin this project.
What is your advice for ambitious young women who are looking to pursue an interest in science or engineering?
My advice to young women interested in science and engineering would be to never fear failure. Every research endeavor comes with its share of failures; however, the best discoveries and innovations often result from mistakes, so it is always important to keep persevering.
How do you plan to continue this kind of work throughout college and in your post-grad life?
I currently attend Stanford University, where I am studying engineering. While completing my undergraduate studies, I hope to continue my involvement in research. I work as an intern at the Stanford Medical School, developing programs to study the genomic causes of diseases. I hope to continue my involvement with research, and I hope to use my technology skills to make discoveries that can improve lives.
Eventually, my goal is to work in the field of affordable medical devices, conducting innovative research and helping to bring novel diagnostic technology to those who need them most. Thus, I am interested in acquiring the skills to develop cheap devices that can replace some of the expensive diagnostic equipment currently used in medicine.
Open-source hardware, led by cheap microcontrollers such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi, is changing the world. More than a billion dollars of these products were sold in 2015. In combination with cheap smartphones and tablets, as well as open-source software development platforms such as Android, we now have the ability to build cheap yet powerful medical devices, making them accessible to large populations.
What do you hope all of your engineering work will accomplish?
I have been fortunate to live all my life in the Silicon Valley. From my perch here at the top of the technology mountain, it is hard to imagine a world where more than half of the population lacks access to some basic technology necessary for leading a healthy life, such as prosthetics, medical diagnostic equipment, prescription glasses, or even electricity. While it is important to advance technology, we also have a moral responsibility to make it accessible to the less privileged populations of the world.
My aspiration is not only to create the “next big thing” in my field one day, but also to make it accessible to more than a privileged few in the world. I hope that my engineering work will help improve lives of people all over the world.
Outside of your engineering work, what else are you passionate about?
Besides engineering and computer science, I am passionate about art. I have been drawing and painting since the age of six, and in high school, I received a few state awards for my artwork. I enjoy applying my art skills to my engineering projects, such as when I used design software to design the 3D printed shell of my pulmonary function analyzer. I think that my artistic side has provided me with a unique vision for my technical projects.
If you could create one thing to use in your everyday life, what would it be?
A robot to debug my code!