In student’s achievement, a win for scientific inquiry

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Mar 6, 2014.

Islamabad – She wanted to grow up to become a detective.

But somewhere along the way, 18-year-old Syeda Minahil used her investigative ambition for medical research instead.

It turned out to be a good decision after all. Minahil, a final-year F. Sc. student from Peshawar, is one of the nine students who have been selected through a national science fair to represent Pakistan at the Intel Science and Educational Fair (ISEF) 2014 in the US.

The annual ISEF, to be held in Los Angeles in May, is considered to be the largest international higher secondary-level science competition in the world.

Minahil, a student at the Forwards Girls College E2 Hayatabad, won her place in the global contest through a project she did on the cure of piles, or swollen hemorrhoids.

The hemorrhoids — blood vessels in the lowest parts of the rectum and anus that help with stool control — are a perfectly normal part of human anatomy, according to Harvard Medical School’s website. But an increased blood flow in the vessels can cause them to swell and become pathological.

There is some debate in the scientific community about what exactly causes piles. But constipation is considered a significant factor and that is what Minahil, who did some research on the Internet before starting work on the project, picked up on.

In a way, her applied project, which uses a mixture of two herbs with high fibre content to facilitate bowel movements, is not groundbreaking medical research: doctors already are prescribe patients to increase fibre intake. The capsules she has developed as a result of experiments and lab tests might not have gone through a prolonged medical trial, either.

But her project is a triumph of the spirit of independent, scientific inquiry in an education system that only encourages rote learning and exam grades.

At ISEF 2014, where Minahil will be competing with some of the best minds of her generation, students who are supported by state-of-the-art technology and funds, for more than $4 million in awards, her chances of gaining glory might be little.

But the confidence she has gained through the project and that curiosity to test hypotheses through experimentation she has ingrained in herself is priceless.

“I have this self-belief now that I can present my research work to the world,” Minahil said. “I have realized that science sharpens the mind and participating in science fairs gives a tremendous boost to confidence.”

She said she thinks parents should encourage their kids to participate in contests such as the Intel domestic science fairs. After all, she would not have participated herself, if it weren’t for her mother’s persistence.

“My mother is a schoolteacher and she has been getting her students to participate in Intel science fairs since 2006,” Minahil said. “She strictly told me I had to apply before I finish my second year of intermediate.”

So with little hope of success, Minahil looked around the home for project ideas, found piles was a common occurrence and did some half-hearted rudimentary research on a cure. The real work began when her project idea made the shortlist in October 2013, she said.

Three months of rigourous lab work, testing (for some of which she got her family members to be the guinea pigs), visits to hospitals for samples and consultations with doctors in Peshawar followed.

“There were times during the laboratory testing of the herbal mixture when I felt worse than crying,” she said.

There was discouragement from senior lab technicians who thought she was attempting M. Phil-level trials, but she said her belief that hard work pays off and some analytical skills from O levels helped her through advanced concepts.

The same technicians now ask her for more work after she won the national Intel Science fair in the individual medical science category in January, Minahil said.

At present, she is corresponding with Intel officials to get her passport and visa sorted out. There is another hurdle: her F. Sc. Examination date sheet might clash with the ISEF 2014 dates. Would she choose a trip to LA over a cold exam hall?

“I’m trying my best but miracles happen,” she is leaving the choice to divine intervention. “Anything can happen in Pakistan.”

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