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High-tech work wins Arizona teens a trip to White House science fair

WASHINGTON — Anvita Gupta is just 17, but the Scottsdale high school student already has an impressive list of accomplishments: She has worked with researchers in China, at Harvard and at the Research Science Institute.

On Monday, Anvita got to add to the list, meeting President Barack Obama at the fifth annual White House science fair. She was one of more than 100 students – and one of three from Arizona – invited to present their projects at the White House.

“It’s amazing. I have to think about what I want to do next to have it live up to this,” Anvita said after meeting with Obama.

Her research, writing an algorithm that makes it easier and quicker for computers to help develop disease-curing drugs, caught the eye of Obama, who singled her out during his speech.

“Anvita Gupta…used artificial intelligence and biochemistry to identify potential treatments for cancer, tuberculosis, Ebola,” Obama said to audience applause.

Obama said it’s important to recognize the work of young scientists like those honored Monday.

“We’ve got to celebrate the winners of our science fairs as much as we celebrate the winners of football or basketball or other athletic competitions,” Obama said. “Because young scientists, mathematicians, engineers, they’re critical to our future.”

Two students from Carl Hayden Community High School were also there, representing the school’s robotics team that was chronicled in the recent documentary, “Underwater Dreams.” Seniors Sergio Corral and Isela Martinez brought along the underwater robot their team designed and built, and showed it to the president.

“I don’t think I’m going to wash my right hand after that handshake,” Sergio said after shaking Obama’s hand.

“I never thought I would be meeting President Obama,” Sergio said. “I thank him a lot for pushing STEM education. It’s really the future and I think he understands that.”

At Monday’s event, Obama announced $240 million in private donations to help fund STEM – science, technology, engineering, math – education. Also on hand for the event were guests like Bill Nye the Science Guy, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and NASA astronaut Leland Melvin.

But the focus of the day was the students, and the theme of this year’s science fair was diversity.

“Science is for all of us,” Obama said. “Part of the problem is we don’t tell the stories enough of the incredible scientists and inventors along the way who are women, or people of color, and as a consequence, people don’t see themselves as potential scientists.”

All three Arizona students met Obama, who visited with 12 of the 35 teams who were displaying their work at the fair. After hearing Anvita, describe her work, Obama turned to a group of trailing reporters and said, “I don’t know what you all have been doing, but this is what she’s being doing.”

Encouraging girls to get involved in STEM is something that Anvita is passionate about. The BASIS Scottsdale senior started an after-school computer science group to teach middle school girls programming.

“It’s really great that women are getting this platform, so that we can inspire more young girls to believe in themselves and go forward in these STEM fields,” she said.