Eighteen-year-old Syeda Minahil wanted to grow up to become a detective, but somewhere along the way, she used her investigative ambition for medical research instead.
It turned out to be a good decision. Minahil is one of nine students selected through a national science fair to represent Pakistan at the Intel Science and Educational Fair (ISEF) 2014 in Los Angeles, USA.
The annual ISEF, to be held in May, is considered the largest international higher secondary-level science competition in the world.
Minahil, a final-year FSc student at the Forwards Girls College Peshawar, won her place in the global contest through a project she did on the cure for piles, or swollen hemorrhoids.
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 instruct 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 mostly encourages rote learning and exam grades.
At the 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 global glory might be small.
But the confidence she has gained through the project and the curiosity to test hypotheses through experimentation she has ingrained in herself are priceless.
“I have self-belief now that I can present my research work to the world,” Minahil said. “I have realised that science sharpens the mind and participating in science fairs gives a tremendous confidence boost.”
She said she thinks parents should encourage their children to participate in contests, adding she would not have participated herself if it were not 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 take part before I finish my second year of intermediate studies.”
So with little hope of success, Minahil looked around the home for project ideas. She found piles as a common occurrence and did some half-hearted rudimentary research on its 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 act as guinea pigs — and visits to hospitals for samples and consultations with doctors in Peshawar followed.
“There were times during the lab testing of the herbal mixture that I felt like crying,” she said.
There was some discouragement from senior lab technicians who thought she was attempting MPhil-level trials, but she said her belief that hard work pays off and some analytical skills from O’ levels helped her through advanced concepts.
Minahil said she was corresponding at present with Intel officials to get her passport and visa sorted out.
But she will face one last hurdle — her FSc exam dates might clash with the ISEF 2014 dates.
“I’m trying my best that a miracle happens and I don’t have to make a choice,” she said, leaving things to divine intervention. “Anything can happen in Pakistan.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2014.