Some of the world’s biggest problems can be solved by the smallest of solutions.
At least that’s what first-year Integrated Sciences student Devanshi Shukla proved when she bioengineered a simple bacterium to detect and alert to the presence of invisible fungal contamination in our homes and food.
The 18-year-old’s bio innovation – which has the potential to help Canadians avoid serious health risks associated with food poisoning or environmental contamination from mold – received a Gold Medal at this year’s Canada-Wide Science Fair. She also received a Young Canadian Manning Innovation Award, which celebrates innovations that show ingenuity, originality, development and potential social and economic benefits.
“To be recognized in this way served to increase my inspiration,” Shukla said. “It was redeeming too, since I experienced some tough moments when I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work.’”
But, it did work.
In the course of her research, Shukla discovered many forms of fungal strains release a unique chemical compound called p-cymene – a chemical that a particular strain of bacteria uses as a source of energy. Rather than using p-cymene as an energy source, Shukla instructed the bacteria to emit a bioluminescent glow in the presence of the chemical instead.
“If there is mold in an orange or a strawberry, for example, and I put my bacteria next to it, within one or two hours it will start glowing if there’s contamination there.”
The bacteria become a biosensor, able to detect and highlight contamination that can’t be seen with the naked eye. As a bonus, Shukla’s innovation is cost-effective, since bacteria are resilient and grow exponentially, and are easy to replicate.
Her inspiration for the project came from hours volunteering at hospitals – in Canada and India – where she came to recognize the impact food poisoning and residential contamination had on the health of our population. Her goal was to tackle this global problem through early detection of possible contaminants.
“I love research. I love tackling a problem without really knowing the end solution – or what path to take to get there,” Shukla said.
Shukla’s drive to discover inspired her to begin participating in regional science fairs in Grade 8 and, as her research skills progressed, she was accepted into the Canada-Wide Science Fair, where she won a Gold Medal in Grade 10, a Bronze Medal in Grade 11 and her latest Gold Medal in Grade 12.
She comes by her interest in the sciences honestly, with a plant biologist father and mother with a background in physics. “If I ever felt discouraged, I had a really good support system at home. My dad is used to asking questions and writing research papers, so I got a lot of mentoring from him.”
At Western, Shukla is soaking up the experience of a program that incorporates a research-based focus into course work.
“You cannot really separate chemistry, biology and physics; they’re really meant to be together and this program really embraces that. For me, I find experiential learning is the other half of school other people don’t always get. The hands-on is important.”
Upon graduation, Shukla hopes to continue lab-based biological research and pursue a masters and PhD in the field.