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The Freshman at MIT Who is Revolutionizing Nanotechnology

Teenager Saumil Bandyopadhyay has harnessed cutting-edge physics to upend industries ranging from automobiles to astronomy

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At the age of 18, Saumil Bandyopadhyay had five peer-reviewed scientific papers to his name, but no driver’s license. His busy schedule was partially to blame—he spent much of high school in an electrical engineering lab at Virginia Commonwealth University, wearing a hairnet and tinkering with nanowires. Since his dad was a professor there, he always had a ride home.

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But in truth, driving terrified him. He winced at the mere mention of a merge. “The collision possibility is very real,” he says one day at home in Glen Allen, Virginia. He’d started learning on his mom’s Honda Civic, but soon dropped the notion.

Instead, he worked even harder on the magnum opus of his young career: a unique infrared detector, which may one day reduce car crash rates by allowing vehicles to sense each other in fog or darkness. The nanoscale contraption, which to the uneducated eye looks like a silver postage stamp, might also someday help spy on stellar nurseries, detect hidden land mines and monitor global warming. Most exciting, it operates at room temperature, without the cumbersome and expensive tanks of liquid nitrogen needed to cool most other infrared sensors.

“It’s a breakthrough—a different way of measuring infrared,” says Gary Tepper, a VCU professor who tutored Bandyopadhyay on one aspect of the project. “We have high-school students in the lab all the time, but we don’t usually see doctoral-level research.” When John Mather, the Nobel laureate astrophysicist, noticed the infrared device at an Intel Science Fair, he invited Bandyopadhyay to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to discuss it. “I thought it was an ingenious idea,” Mather says. “He’s a brilliant kid.” The device has also attracted the interest of the U.S. Army.

Saumil’s youth, to be sure, was rarely typical. “He developed in fits and starts,” said his father, Supriyo, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Saumil could add by age 2, but he didn’t speak until 3 1/2. Then he went from mute to fluent, chatting away in the Bengali his parents spoke at home. At the start of kindergarten, he knew just a few phrases in English, such as “call Mommy.” Yet barely a year later he was spouting off ten pages of narration for the first-grade play. “I was the only one who could read it,” Saumil says.

What the family calls Saumil’s “professional” career began in seventh grade, when he worked on a science fair project with one of Supriyo’s university colleagues. “The experiment didn’t do very well,” Supriyo says, “but nonetheless, he won.”

Over the years Saumil would rack up countless other prizes, including tens of thousands of dollars in science fair scholarship money. The lava lamp in his boyhood bedroom is a prize (courtesy of the Google Science Fair), as is the baseball cap and the calculator and the clock. Even the stuffed bunny is a prize, for the highest grade in middle-school English.

Glory has a price, of course. Saumil can be so focused on the task at hand that he forgets to eat—at the International Space Olympics in 2011, he dropped eight pounds off his already slender frame. But his mother, Anu, objects to the adjective “studious.” “He likes to do other things more than reading schoolbooks,” she says. “He likes his Quizbowl. He would study two hours at least every day when he was trying to get onto the A-team. Every day! At least two. So we don’t exactly know when he goes to bed.”

“It’s rare that I am up past 2 a.m.,” he reassures her, though he sometimes doesn’t go to sleep at all.

At first his parents saw the high- school Quizbowl team as a threat to Saumil’s real work, but he proved that he could maintain his grades. He also indulges a weakness for Bollywood action movies, which he watches with his mom, nibbling a crunchy Indian snack called dalmut, and for all things Harry Potter: The seven volumes of the boy wizard’s adventures went with Saumil to college this fall, along with a text that might be considered his own book of spells, Quantum Mechanics.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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