As the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies race to find treatments for the novel coronavirus, one scientist has been working for months on a potential treatment in her bedroom. Her name is Anika Chebrolu, and she’s only 14.
A freshman at Independence High School in Frisco, Tex., Chebrolu this week won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge and $25,000 for her discovery: a compound that can bind to the coronavirus, inhibiting its ability to infect people. She beat out nine other finalists — whose own projects ranged from a robotic glove to a device that detects invisible particles in water — to be named America’s top young scientist.
Chebrolu first started working on her project last year when she was in eighth grade, initially looking to find a treatment for the influenza virus. But then the pandemic hit. With her mentor, 3M corporate scientist Mahfuza Ali, she changed tack. She’s just finalized her research, and she’s hoping to start reaching out to virologists to develop her finding into an antiviral drug.
With more than 220,000 people in the United States dead because of covid-19, viable treatments are crucial. On Thursday, remdesivir, a drug that inhibits a substance the virus uses to make copies of itself, became the first medicine to win full Food and Drug Administration approval for treating covid-19.
We caught up with Chebrolu days after she found out she was this year’s winner.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Lena Felton: Congratulations on winning the competition. It must be so exciting. What has this past week been like for you?
Anika Chebrolu: Busy with interviews and everything. It’s just really exciting all around.
LF: So you’re going to school during the day and then sort of doing all this afterward?
AC: Yeah, but school’s virtual, so that makes everything a little easier because you don’t have to worry about commuting or anything like that.
LF: Awesome. Well I’m really excited to be talking to you. But I don’t know too much about science and everything that went into your discovery. How would you describe what you accomplished to your classmates, or people like me?
AC: So I developed a potential antiviral for covid-19 infection. I found the molecule from a database of millions of compounds that can bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and change its shape. And by changing the shape of the spike protein by attaching the molecule to it, it can stop the virus from infecting human cells, and basically stop the infectivity of the virus in human cells.
LF: That’s impressive, because so many big companies and top scientists are trying to work toward treatments for covid-19. Why for you was this really important to work on?
AC: So obviously because of the pandemic, everyone’s life has changed. We have quarantine and stay-at-home orders and just that constant fear of yourself or your loved one getting infected by the coronavirus. And we know that scientists across the world are racing to create newer vaccinations to combat the virus and its potential aftermath. So everyone needs to put in all their efforts, as they are, which is quite warranted. So my effort to find a spike protein binder isn’t unique in its methodology, and it may appear to be a drop in the ocean, but it adds to all these efforts and therefore is quite substantial.
LF: For sure. What has been your experience just in terms of dealing with quarantine and online schooling?
AC: Initially, I couldn’t believe it, because I had spent so much time researching about drug discovery and vaccinations and pandemics even before the pandemic hit us. To think we were actually living through something like that, something that’s once in a generation, once in a lifetime experience, it’s crazy to think that. So it’s impacted me a lot, like of course it has for everyone else in the world as well. Everyone’s trying to protect themselves and their loved ones, because it’s scary living in a pandemic — no one’s done it before.
LF: What interested you in studying pandemics before this?
AC: So initially, I started with the influenza virus for my project. And that started after a school project when I was researching about the 1918 [influenza pandemic]. And after researching about the flu, I realized that even with the current antivirals that we have, even with these annual vaccinations that we have, there’s still about 60,000 deaths in the USA alone, despite all these therapies that are there every year. So it kind of caused me to think, what can I do about this? What can I do about this problem to help ease the mortality caused by the flu?
And so I did more extensive research, and I found out about this methodology, which could use computational methods to identify potential antivirals against viruses and infections. After more research, I tried to combine my knowledge of the methodology and my knowledge of the influenza virus to find a potential antiviral against the influenza virus. So I actually submitted it into the Dallas Regional Science Fair, and later into the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. And when I submitted to that challenge, that’s when the coronavirus was at its first spikes, its first stages. That made me change my project. So I collaborated with my mentor, Dr. Mahfuza Ali, and we decided to change routes and pivot and target the SARS-CoV-2 virus, because it’s obviously made a bigger impact than the influenza virus has made this year.
LF: When did you first get interested in science? Is it something that you’ve always known that you wanted to pursue?
AC: I’ve always been interested in science. It started at a very young age with my grandfather, who was a chemistry professor. He used to push me into science and do all these science experiments with me, like building a volcano in the backyard or make salt crystals or something like that. After that, it just kind of grew by itself. And then in about sixth or seventh grade, I actually started looking into problems in the world and how I could use my knowledge of science and my passion for it to actually solve problems.
LF: It’s well-known that boys are often told they should go into science, and girls are told to go into something less difficult. So I wonder what it’s been like to navigate the science world and get such acclaim as a girl.
AC: Luckily, my family has honestly always been super supportive of my science passion. And I know there’s a lot of girls in the world who don’t get that same support or opportunity to count STEM as part of their passions or go into that as a career. So for all the girls out there who want to go into STEM, who want to go into science, just know that you’re no different than any other person. You’re special in your own way. Take on any opportunity that you see, because you never know where you’re going to end up.
LF: Absolutely. Who is your biggest inspiration in science or more generally, just sort of in your life?
AC: Probably my brother, he’s just always been so supportive of me, of everything that I’ve done, always pushed me to be my best. He was actually the one who told me to sign up for the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. Even when I faced a challenge in my project, he would always support me and tell me to keep going and keep pushing and eventually make it through.
LF: Is he older?
AC: Yeah, he’s a junior in high school right now. So 1½ years older.
LF: Nice. Is he into science as well?
AC: Yeah, he is.
LF: That’s great. You just talked about the challenges of the project. What was the most difficult part of the process for you?
AC: Probably software implementation. I worked with a lot of softwares that were really great softwares for molecular docking, which is one of the methodology principles that was used in my methodology. Some of these softwares were not easy to use and failed multiple times for me because of the complexity of the software and many factors that impacted the end result. So it took a lot of research and many times I failed, and I didn’t even know what had caused the failure or error to arise.
After a lot of research and a lot of support from my family who told me to always just keep going, I finally figured out how to use the software and I became comfortable with the use of it. And then, of course with the support of my mentor and everything, I was able to finally get the results from software.
LF: So what are your dreams for the future? You just started high school, so I’m curious what you’re hoping to accomplish in the short term, and then also looking further down the line.
AC: So right now, I actually just finalized the findings from my research, and I’m planning on contacting virologists and drug development specialists to further develop my research and my molecule to make it a potent antiviral drug.
And then in the future, for my profession, I would like to be a medical researcher because I really like science and particularly biology.
LF: And if you have any time in between your research and school, how do you relax and what do you like to do for fun?
AC: In my free time, I like to do dance. I’ve been doing Bharatanatyam, which is a classical Indian dance, for about eight years. Aside from that, I like to do art, painting in my free time. And then spending time with family and friends.
LF: It’s great that you can elevate not only being a woman in science, but also an Indian American woman. What has it been like to navigate that identity in the science world?
AC: I think being an Indian American, it makes me no different than any other person in the U.S. or across the world. Every person is the same, no matter their race, no matter their culture. Everyone, if they have a passion for something, they can accomplish anything they want.
LF: Do you have any other thoughts on advice to other girls who are interested in science?
AC: To all the girls out there, just keep on going. Keep on pushing. Keep your curiosity. Always make sure to take any opportunity that you see and go for it. Just keep on going, because you never know where you’re going to end up.
LF: Definitely. Did you ever envision that you would be here winning $25,000 as a 14-year-old?
AC: No, I just entered the competition because I thought it’d be a cool opportunity. I never thought I would end up as a top 10 finalist, let alone like America’s top young scientist.