How a High School Senior Won $150,000 By Inventing a $35 Medical Device

When Maya Varma learned an expensive diagnostic tool is rare in the developing world, she decided to build her own

Maya Varma won $150,000 as one of the first place winners in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition. (Maya Varma)
smithsonian.com

A few years ago, while at summer camp, Maya Varma witnessed a close friend having a severe asthma attack. She was taken to a hospital and recovered.

For most teenagers, that would be that. But Varma isn’t like most teenagers.

She started asking questions and discovered that a device called a spirometer was used to treat her friend. Varma had no idea what a spirometer was, but she inquired more. She learned that spirometers typically cost hundreds of dollars, sometimes even more, and, as result, they can be pretty rare in developing countries.

And so, she decided to design her own model, one that was just as effective in analyzing lung conditions, but considerably cheaper.

The result, a device that cost her only $35 to build and can diagnose five different lung ailments, is already paying dividends. Last week, Varma, now a high school senior, won $150,000 as one of the first place winners in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition.

A born inventor

“I just felt there was something I could do about this,” Varma says matter-of-factly. 

And why not. The daughter of two Silicon Valley engineers, she has been inventing things for a while now. In the sixth grade, after she became aware of the dangers of distracted driving, she devised a signaling system that would let drivers know when a stoplight was about to turn red. Last year, she was awarded a patent for that one. Then, in the eighth grade, she developed a cost-effective way to detect foot neuropathy in patients with diabetes. That won the grand prize in the California State Science Fair. It also sparked her interest in biomedical research, specifically designing technological solutions to health issues. That’s where she felt she could really make a difference.  

Through her research on spirometers, Varma learned that their high cost is a big barrier to the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the fourth leading cause of death around the world and a condition for which early detection is critical.

After she was awarded a $600 research grant from Johns Hopkins University in 2014, Varma got to work building a cheap spirometer prototype. Muhammad Ali Yousuf, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins, provided mentoring advice on medical matters by email. But Varma actually built her device at home.   

How it works

Varma's spirometer has three main components. First, there’s the shell, made on a 3D printer. When a person breathes into the shell, the rate of the air flow is measured by a pressure sensor as his or her breath passes through a fine, stainless steel mesh.  

The sensor converts the pressure change to digital data, which is monitored by a microcontroller and transmitted through a Bluetooth connection to a mobile app that Varma created.

The app computes lung performance and illustrates it on the person’s smartphone, taking into account age, gender, weight and other factors. It’s able to diagnose five different respiratory illnesses—COPD, asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and restrictive lung disease—and also has a disease management tool that allows patients to record their symptoms and test results, and track the severity of their illness.

Varma has applied for a patent for her spirometer. Her next step is to build more so she can send them to universities and medical schools for testing. It’s no small undertaking. She figures she needs 100 spirometers. So far, she’s built 10.

“There are still a lot of challenges,” she concedes. “But it’s so rewarding when you’re able to do something that can make a difference in people’s lives.”

She also has some pretty simple advice for others with an innovative idea.

“It can get discouraging, but you can learn a lot from your failures. Always persevere,” she says.

Next fall, Varma will start her college career. She hasn’t decided yet where she’ll go, but her choices include MIT, Harvard and Stanford. 

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