Anika Chebrolu, a 14-year-old from Frisco, Texas, has just won the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge — and a $25,000 prize — for a discovery that could provide a potential therapy to Covid-19.
Anika’s winning invention uses in-silico methodology to discover a lead molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“The last two days, I saw that there is a lot of media hype about my project since it involves the SARS-CoV-2 virus and it reflects our collective hopes to end this pandemic as I, like everyone else, wish that we go back to our normal lives soon,” Anika told CNN.
The coronavirus has killed more than 1.1 million people globally since China reported its first case to the World Health Organization (WHO) in December. The United States has more than 219,000 deaths, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
Anika, who is Indian American, submitted her project when she was in 8th grade — but it wasn’t always going to be focused on finding a cure for Covid-19.
Initially, her goal was to use in-silico methods to identify a lead compound that could bind to a protein of the influenza virus.
“After spending so much time researching about pandemics, viruses and drug discovery, it was crazy to think that I was actually living through something like this,” Anika said.
“Because of the immense severity of the Covid-19 pandemic and the drastic impact it had made on the world in such a short time, I, with the help of my mentor, changed directions to target the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
Anika said she was inspired to find potential cures to viruses after learning about the 1918 flu pandemic and finding out how many people die every year in the United States despite annual vaccinations and anti-influenza drugs on the market.
“Anika has an inquisitive mind and used her curiosity to ask questions about a vaccine for Covid-19,” Dr. Cindy Moss, a judge for the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, told CNN.
“Her work was comprehensive and examined numerous databases. She also developed an understanding of the innovation process and is a masterful communicator. Her willingness to use her time and talent to help make the world a better place gives us all hope.”
Anika said winning the prize and title of top young scientist is an honor, but her work isn’t done.
Her next goal, she says, is to work alongside scientists and researchers who are fighting to “control the morbidity and mortality” of the pandemic by developing her findings into an actual cure for the virus.
“My effort to find a lead compound to bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus this summer may appear to be a drop in the ocean, but still adds to all these efforts,” she said. “How I develop this molecule further with the help of virologists and drug development specialists will determine the success of these efforts.”
Of course, Anika also finds time to be normal 14-year-old. When she isn’t in a lab or working toward her goal of becoming a doctor or researcher, Anika trains for the Indian classical dance called Bharatanatyam, which she has been practicing for eight years.