Pooja Chandrashekar has reason enough to feel on top of the world. At the age of just 17, she’s developed an app that analyses speech patterns to predict whether a person has Parkinson’s disease and set up a nationwide organisation to encourage young American girls to pursue careers in technology.
But that’s not all – she’s also scored an admission to 14 top US universities, including all eight Ivy League schools.
Even among the brainy kids at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a top-ranked school in the US, Pooja stands out with her 4.57 grade-point average and a score of 2390 (out of 2400) on the SAT.
And now that she has the choice to get into the Ivy League schools or Stanford, MIT, Duke, the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech, the only child of engineers who migrated to the US from Bengaluru is dreaming of a career at the “nexus of medicine, technology and entrepreneurship as a physician developing innovative healthcare technologies”.
“I feel so honored and humbled to be accepted to these colleges and be recognised for my work and efforts over the past four years,” Pooja told Hindustan Times in an email interview.
Pooja has narrowed her list to Harvard, Stanford and Brown, where she got into a programme that guarantees her admission to the university’s medical school.
Getting admission to one Ivy League school is a rare achievement for most US high school students and it is extremely rare for a student to get accepted at all eight, though a few manage to do so each year.
But Pooja has more than her academic achievements to fall back on. The mobile app she developed analyzes speech patterns and predicts if a person has Parkinson’s disease with 96% accuracy.
She founded ProjectCSGIRLS after her sophomore year as a “response to the tech gender gap that was glaringly noticeable in her computer science classes”. It works to cultivate a love for technology and computer science among girls and encourage them to pursue interests and careers in these fields.
“I was one of only three girls in my AP Computer Science class freshman year, so that's what motivated me to start ProjectCSGIRLS as a way of encouraging more girls to become future leaders in technology and computer science,” she said.
Pooja attended the private Nysmith School at Herndon in Virginia before enrolling at Thomas Jefferson High School, where she studied computing, artificial intelligence and DNA science.
She spent her summers attending programmes in robotics and tinkered with web design and game programming. In middle school, she built a windmill to explore the prospects of renewable energy.
“She loves creative writing, organising and participating in hackathons, making people laugh, travelling, and tasting good food,” according to the ProjectCSGIRLS website.
“I'm also hoping to get involved with biomedical engineering and computational neuroscience research throughout college and medical school since I've loved doing research during my high school years and have been recognised as an Intel Science Talent Search Semifinalist and Siemens Competition National Semifinalist,” she said.
Pooja said her parents – her mother works as a software engineer and her dad as a network engineer – immigrated from Bengaluru nearly 25 years ago. “They obtained their master's degrees here in the US - my mom at Arizona State University and my dad at Texas A&M. I do still have family in Bangalore and Mysore and I do still visit India,” she said.
Not content with encouraging girls in the US to pursue careers in technology, Pooja said she would also like to do something similar in India.
“I would love to help girls in India take to careers in technology! We're actually working on launching an international computer science competition through ProjectCSGIRLS for students outside of the US and we hope to get that up and running next year,” she said.
Her guidance counselor, Kerry Hamblin, told Washington Post she was dedicated to pushing herself in the classroom, which helped her to stand out. “She’s taking the hardest courses, the most challenging that we offer, and has exceeded anyone’s expectations in all of them,” he said.
As a summer intern at the MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit organisation that operates research and development centres sponsored by the US government, Pooja impressed older colleagues by working on a diagnostic tool for determining early signs of mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI), said James S Ellenbogen, chief scientist of emerging technologies at MITRE.
“Pooja helped improve a model that could mimic the human response to a simple test for mTBI,” said Michael Fine, lead engineer in the MITRE neurotechnology group. “Her work may eventually allow us to optimise the diagnostic test, which should further improve the accuracy of the results when it is administered to patients.”
Despite her accomplishments, Pooja is like most other teenagers. She enjoys watching TV shows like Shark Tank, listening to Bollywood music and exploring restaurants.
She’s also a fan of the Food Network and is amazed by chefs who show off their skills in the kitchen. It’s one subject, she admits, she hasn’t mastered.
“I can’t cook for my life,” Pooja told Washington Post. “But it’s fun to imagine I can.”