Upper St. Clair student takes science project to White House

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Upper St. Clair High School student Ananya Cleetus has a few high-powered new friends.

When she arrived in Washington, D.C. for the White House Science Fair on May 27, the 17-year-old was greeted by U.S. Secret Service agents who recognized her and knew her by name.

“It was a little unnerving,” Ananya said with a laugh. “I guess they did their research.”

The Upper St. Clair resident was one of 32 students and student teams selected from across the country to present their projects in the nation’s capital, and the only exhibitor from Pennsylvania. In addition to meeting President Barack Obama, she showcased her most recent invention: an affordable robotic hand she designed for leprosy patients.

Ananya focused on creating a product that could be used by everybody­, not just those who can afford costly prostheses.

“I’m really interested in science outside of the lab­ — the impact of science in terms of social engineering and solving people’s problems,” said Ananya.

She chose to focus her project on people in India who have lost limbs due to leprosy, a chronic infection which causes damage to the skin, nerves and mucous membranes. Because the stigma of the disease forces patients to live in isolation, they are also one of the country’s most medically vulnerable populations.

Dr. George Kantor, a scientist at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, said Ananya required almost no supervision when he mentored her on a previous project, an invention meant to improve upon the design of the Jaipur Foot, a brand of affordable prosthetic limbs.

Beyond her independence, Dr. Kantor was impressed by Ananya’s awareness of technology’s practical applications.

“A lot of students who do science tend to be really excited about the hottest new thing,” he said. “Ananya recognized that the foot needed to be really simple in order to be used in the vast majority of the world.”

Or, as the Boulder, Colo.-based National Center for Women & Information Technology’s strategy director Ruthe Farmer put it, “Instead of designing Candy Crush, she has created a solution that will give someone more independence.”

Ananya’s interest in prosthetics was sparked on one of her trips to her grandparents’ home in New Delhi. There, she visited the facilities of one of the world’s largest non-profit organizations dedicated to helping people with disabilities, Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti.

She had learned about the group after reading an article about the Jaipur Foot, a form of prosthetic limb which the organization uses at its rehabilitation camps.

After seeing how the prostheses were manufactured and fitted, Ananya was motivated to improve the invention.

“The original Jaipur Foot has a solid rubber sole,” she said. “A dead weight.”

Ananya conceived of and created a prototype of her improvement independently at home, as well as under the guidance of Dr. Kantor. She added a spring to the ankle joint, which allowed for increased flexibility and mobility. The venture is just one of many she has pursued in the last few years and hopes to make available to the public.

The daughter of an advertising associate and a library assistant, Ananya is the only member of her family pursuing a career in science.

As a child, she drew inspiration from programs like “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

“My favorite toys were Legos, not Barbies,” Ananya said. She enjoyed working with her hands, solving the Rubik’s Cube and taking apart pens. When she grew older, she consulted books and the Internet to teach herself computer modelling, stress testing and other robotics techniques.

Francis Cleetus, Ananya’s father, recalled noticing his daughter’s talent for numbers and computation at an early age.

“I used to have an iPhone app that helped me calculate tips at restaurants,” Mr. Cleetus said. “She would always beat the app, so I deleted it.”

Ananya currently teaches a self-designed, accredited robotics course to students at Sto-Rox Middle School. After she graduates from high school, she plans to study electrical engineering and computer science, with a focus on robotics.

Ananya was nominated to the White House Science Fair by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which also selected her as one of the organization’s 35 Award for Aspirations in Computing winners from across the country.

 Yanan Wang: ywang@post-gazette.com.

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