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Clean Air is Good Medicine

Did you know over 100 million people around the globe suffer from asthma, and that more than 180,000 die from the disease each year1? Naomi Shah, Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS) 2013 finalist, and Best of Category Winner in Environmental Science at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2(Intel ISEF) 2013, has shown that treating the homes of asthmatic patients may be just as important as treating their bodies.

Ten-year-old Naomi Shah wondered why her brother’s and father’s chronic allergy symptoms persisted long past pollen season. She read that indoor air pollution might be the culprit and launched an experiment to see if this was true for her family. She removed the air filters from the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system in her home, measured the indoor air quality, and compared it to the air quality when filters were in place. She learned that the filters did, indeed, play a huge role in determining the pollutants present in her home.

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So began a multi-year journey that turned the curious sixth grader into a skilled scientist now attending Stanford University. Naomi competed in Intel-sponsored science fairs throughout middle school and at the Intel ISEF in all four years of high school. In her senior year, she was also a finalist in the Intel STS. Her increasingly sophisticated research—which at one point involved more than 100 human test subjects and 4 million air quality readings—included developing a mathematical model to predict lung health based on environmental factors. She also designed a "biofilter" that could potentially be integrated in an existing HVAC system to improve indoor air quality. Her filter design used plant materials to metabolically break down chemical pollutants before they could enter a building.   

After graduating from high school, Naomi worked as a summer intern at Intel Labs on a project aimed at enabling people to track air pollution in their areas in real time. As part of the project, she used extremely advanced math skills to pioneer a way to calibrate low-cost air quality sensors. “By running these calibrations on inexpensive (i.e., five-dollar) sensors, we can get them to perform in the context of sensors that today cost 10,000 dollars,” says research psychologist Richard Beckwith, Naomi’s Intel supervisor. Using “big data” acquired from multiple inexpensive sensors, he explains, individuals may someday be able to “map” the quality of local air, so they can choose where to go running or which way to walk their child to school based on which route has the cleanest air. “Naomi’s research this past summer is bringing that reality much closer.”

Naomi Shah

Intel science competitions

Naomi participated in Intel-sponsored science fairs for seven years and then became a summer intern at Intel Labs, where she worked on a project aimed at enabling people to map air quality in their areas, so they can reduce their potential exposure to allergens and pollutants. 

Changing the air we breathe

Changing the air we breathe

Go deeper into Naomi’s research in air quality and related health issues, find out what sparks her curiosity, and see how she is helping to inspire and mentor other young girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) with this collaborative podcast from Intel and the Huffington Post’s Girls in STEM Mentorship Program. 

Intel Labs

Intel Labs

Intel researchers work to identify challenges and develop technological innovations today for a better tomorrow in enterprise, consumer, and academic research.

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1. World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs206/en/

2. A program of the Society for Science & the Public.