- True Stories
Growing Up Gifted
Meet eight smart kids who are making an impact
There simply isn't a single way to define or gauge intelligence. Smartness in kids is a sum of different cognitive abilities not just IQ. It spans across multiple areas: kinetic, musical, spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal and intrapersonal. We often forget this and tend to benchmark children based on their grades in class. This Children's Day, let's take a peek into the world of young, forward-thinking and highly intelligent girls and boys who not just show great promise but are already achievers. They are here as much for their high smarts, as they are for their wisdom, talent, creativity, social consciousness, foresight, bold ambitions and the ability to put others before themselves -- a quality that often eludes grown-ups. Meet the artist, the writer, the app/website creators, the inventor, the grand master, the space innovators -- and the girl with the perfect IQ test score.
Shorya Mahanot was four when he finally managed to sneak into his sisters' room. They were the artists in the family and he had never been allowed inside. That day, he was ecstatic colouring with real paint, not the crayons they always handed him. Caught while trying to sneak out, he ran to his room, scared. Instead, Shorya got a big hug. His family had never seen art like this before -- there were shades of Jackson Pollock -- and his father, Aditya, was beyond excited.
At 10 going on 11, Shorya has created over 100 works in acrylic, some canvases bigger than his tiny frame. One of the world's youngest abstractionist, with several solo exhibitions under his belt, he has participated at the Artexpo in New York and Microsoft's Future Decoded in Mumbai, selling paintings worth $46,000 in all. He's also a featured artist at the Holtzman Gallery in New Jersey, USA, his art displayed alongside musician John Lennon and actor Anthony Quinn. And then, he did a live demonstration for the late cartoonist R. K. Laxman at the age of five. "He invited me to his home to paint in front of him," Shorya gushed. "He blessed me and encouraged me to paint."
When he's not studying, the class VI student, paints laying out his canvas on his terrace floor. His art is multilayered, inspired from nature. "I look at the leaves and the trees," he says, his voice soft and shy. "They have so many different shades of green." And when he is not making art, he indulges in photography ("It's like catching time on camera."), gardening or working in his other "laboratory", the kitchen. Or, playing in the lawn.
Just minutes before our scheduled phone interview, an apologetic Aditya called sounding like any other beleaguered parent. Shorya had got bitten by wasps while playing in the lawn, and had to be rushed to the hospital. "I don't know what he was doing there," he mutters. The next day, a recovering Shorya mumbles, "I was just walking in the lawn."
Ask him about the future and he seems relieved at the change of subject, and replies with a quick "I don't know. I can do whatever I want later. I just want to paint right now."
-- Chitra Subramanyam
In end 2015 Delhi's air pollution was so alarming that the high court said it was like "living in a gas chamber". Inspired by the Chinese government, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal introduced driving restrictions on private vehicles beginning 1 January 2016: Cars with odd and even number plates would be allowed to run on alternate days. But this created a problem -- of transportation -- to which Akshat Mittal found a solution, a website called odd-even.com.
It was a neat carpooling fix for thousands of city commuters -- odd-numbered car owners were matched with even-numbered ones, based on timings, gender, profession and age. They could book a one-way ride or a return journey, using their cars rotationally. Quite simple really, but it took a 13-year-old to figure it out. The website got over 30,000 registrations during the first phase alone.
Now 15, Akshat has come a long way. He sold his website to the ride-sharing app Orahi in April 2016, retaining a board seat. Amongst the youngest entrepreneurs in the world, he is now working on a project called Change My India, a platform for change-makers to connect and solve societal problems.
The 10th grader sees himself as a "young entrepreneur who wants to build and scale social impact ventures to build a new India … someone who identifies problems and tries to solve them by making products, using technology". Encouraged by his father, he has been doing basic web programming since he was in the fifth standard. "I always wanted to learn new languages" -- but looks like computing is the language of his choice.
Akshat's contributions have not been ignored -- apart from extensive media coverage, he has been felicitated by UN Women, recognized by The Global Education & Leadership Foundation and invited to speak at TEDx and VCCircle.
An unusually focused teenager, Akshat doesn't see himself as any different from other kids. His favourite subjects are mathematics and physics and he loves playing badminton. He aspires to study business management at an Ivy League school one day. What sets him apart, though, are the qualities of perseverance and dedication, rare at his age, and the ability to seek out problems to solve.
-- Suchismita Ukil
Author of three books -- her latest, The House that Spoke was published by Penguin this January -- 16-year-old Zuni Chopra's childhood fantasy involved her combing through dense, tropical forests or scouring the Antarctic, looking for a great, big adventure. But, "being an explorer meant frequent interaction with bugs and that didn't quite work for me, so then I decided to be a writer. How else could I explore the whole world sitting in my bedroom?"
The House that Spoke is a fantasy novel set in Kashmir. "I wanted to bring out the truth about Kashmir as that is where I originally come from, to show that it is a beautiful place where a fantasy could be set. Of course, you need to take into account its political history, but I am not making a political statement. I don't think I have gained enough knowledge to make one," she adds thoughtfully.
Writers Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman and J. K. Rowling are Zuni's idols -- also her guides for great prose. She turns to her father, film producer and director Vidhu Vinod Chopra for honest feedback, "He judges me objectively, which I appreciate, because sugarcoating doesn't make sense, particularly when you are trying to grow."
On her poetry books -- The Land of Dreams and Painting with Words -- the self-aware, introspecting teen chortles, "I wouldn't recommend them. I wrote them when I was 9 and 11, and they are really not well-written, as you can imagine."
A feminist, she believes there is need for more intelligent representation of women in the media. "Gender tropes need to be challenged," she adds while talking about the protagonist of her novel, Zoon Razdan.
Sharing her joy of reading and the wonder that her craft inspires in her, she says: "You can create whole worlds out of words. They are often deeper and memorable, over films, for example."
This 11th grader is now working on a book of short stories and teaching English -- writing and storytelling -- to kids at the Maharashtra Mitra Mandal Library, down the road from her Bandra home. "It's really fun, I've made some good friends, and we have a great time."
-- Naorem Anuja
In the fall of 2013, Trisha Prabhu, then 13, read the story of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old from Florida who committed suicide after being cyberbullied. "I was shocked, heartbroken and outraged. How could a girl younger than me be pushed to take her own life?" asks the teen. This triggered her quest to prevent the damage.
Researching cyberbullying, she learnt that teens are more likely to make impulsive choices, because the prefrontal cortex that controls decision-making isn't fully developed until early to mid-20s. Everyone is free to post online; this can be easily abused, resulting in the "silent pandemic" of cyberbulling.
"What if adolescents got an opportunity to reconsider posting an offensive message? Would they change their minds?" she had thought. The daughter of engineers, she's been coding since she was 10. She realized that a problem created by technology could be resolved with technology. She spent two years developing the now patented ReThink (a free app available on Android and iOS) for mobile platforms with a mission to stop online bullying.
In her research trial, Trisha noticed that 93 per cent of the time teens reconsidered an offensive post, after this alert: This message may be hurtful to others. Are you sure you want to post this message? The tendency to post hurtful messages dropped from 71.4 to 4.6 per cent.
The app is built with a growing database of words and phrases that could be offensive. She works with parents, schools and law enforcers to empower teens and also runs a charity to teach women coding. Trisha is focusing on widening ReThink's reach to benefit teens worldwide and implementing image-based technology to detect offensive images and videos.
Running ReThink today, at 17, she has given TED talks in several countries and even made a deal with investors Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner on the hit Netflix show Shark Tank.
She hopes to pursue a major that combines her love for business, science and the humanities. "In 10 years, if I am making the world a better place, I know that I am on the right track." With a sharp, socially conscious mind like hers, the future is in good hands.
-- Ayushi Thapliyal
The Champ, Aravindh Chithambaram, 17, Chennai Grand Master at 15
Aravindh Chithambaram is unlike all his classmates in the B.Com course at SRM University, Chennai. The 17-year-old, soon 18, earned the Grandmaster (GM) title -- the highest a chess player can attain -- when he was just 15.
A fun game with his grandfather, who taught him chess to instill discipline and patience, set off Aravindh's journey at eight. "He couldn't play cricket so we played chess," he says. To beat his grandfather, Aravindh started taking weekly chess classes.
He won his first title in the under-11 national championship. At 12, he won the National Under-19 Junior Open. That's when (GM) R. B. Ramesh, his coach, took him under his wing. "Playing in the big league is all about gaining experience," he says. Aravindh is completely devoted and trains for three to four hours every day. With all the hard work, he became Grandmaster in 2015, at the World Youth Under-16 Olympiad in Hungary.
"Chess has helped me analyze situations not only on the board but also off it," he says. An astute player, Aravindh has all his moves planned, but has his share of hurdles too. The game has taught this polite teenager optimism and made him tenacious. "I couldn't bear to lose a game, so I started meditation. It has improved my concentration and helped me overcome losses," he adds.
Aravindh idolizes the "fighting spirit" of Viswanathan Anand and the "endgame skills" of Norwegian GM Magnus Carlsen. The future when his role models are his competitors is not far. Just like the players who motivate him, Aravindh has his eye set on the number one spot.
-- Gagan Dhillon
Siddharth Mandala, 18, the inventor of ElectroShoe -- a device that enables the user to electrocute an offender and alert the nearby police station and friends of their location, using Wi-Fi -- would have been a caped crusader in an alternate universe.
This innovator was inspired into action when, as a 12-year-old, he accompanied his mother to the Nirbhaya rallies in Hyderabad. The streets, thick with anger, had his mind ticking: "There had to be a better way … Women may forget to carry pepper spray or other self-defence tools, but everyone puts on shoes. That's the intuitive logic behind ElectroShoe."
It took him two years to come up with the prototype, using social media to reach out to those who could help him. "I used to spam their inbox; whenever my codes didn't work and I needed help. Joseph Solomon, an embedded systems enthusiast, helped me get my fundamentals right," he says.
Mandala was awarded a letter of appreciation by the government of Telangana for his invention in May 2017. But ElectroShoe needs modifications to make it market ready.
Siddharth believes technology can truly change the quality of our lives. He launched Cognizance Welfare Initiative (CWI) about two years ago to teach coding to students from municipal schools and helped them build microcontroller projects such as a GPS tracking system to locate their siblings, in danger-prone areas.
The Hyderabad-based CWI inspires children to use science to enable them to create solutions for their communities and works to spread awareness about sexual violence, conducts book drives, educates communities on water pollution and helps children hone their reading and comprehension skills. So far CWI has taught over 500 children and plans to expand to two more villages. Mandala is now working with his friend Praneet Sah, on developing a programme to identify malignant melanoma with a phone camera.
Currently taking a break from studies, he is weighing his options. "I want to explore different fields, travel the world, see the Himalayas. I want to push myself out of my comfort zone and understand people's struggles and different perspectives. This gap year will be more productive than any other period in my life."
Rifath Shaarook was 14 when he met Srimathy Kesan, the founder-CEO of Space Kidz India (SKI), in 2012, as a student journalist. What began as a one-off interview soon transformed into the coming together of two minds. The teenager from Pallapatti toyed with the idea of sending a student satellite to space. And while other grown-ups were quick to dismiss it, Kesan was different. She had laid the foundation for SKI in 2011, a private organization committed to promoting innovation among children, particularly in the fields of aerospace and aeronautics. As part of the Young Scientists India competition for SKI, which sought to convert innovations into real-time projects, Kesan was scouting for new talent. She saw potential in him and his idea, but first they needed a team.
Enter Tanishq Dwivedi, Yagna Sai and Mohammed Abdul Kashif. The 17-year-olds had enrolled in Hindustan University, Chennai to study aerospace engineering. They chanced upon a flyer on their college noticeboard that changed their life. It was about a workshop organized by Space Kidz India at the NASA headquarters. "After coming back from the trip, [Kesan] handpicked us and gave us our first project," Yagna remembers.
The first project was the SKI-NSLV Kalam 1, a balloon satellite, launched near space to gather data on air quality, altitude, gases and so on. After a two-year-long struggle, Space Kidz successfully launched the vehicle in 2015, a first for India -- with support from educators at NASA and University of Central Florida. Around this time, an aerospace engineering student from Jain University, Bengaluru, Vinay Bharadwaj was introduced to the team. Gobinath, a biologist studying at Madras University, followed soon.
Four years of hard work finally paid off in June this year with the launch of KalamSAT, the world's lightest satellite, from the Wallops Island flight facility in Virginia, powered by Cubes in Space, iDoodle Learning's stem-based initiative, with NASA and Colorado Space Consortium. So small you can hold in your palm, the 'femtosat' is a 3.8 cm cube made of 3D-printed carbon polymer fibre and weighs 64 grams. The project was completed with a budget of Rs 3.86 lakh. The satellite was in space for 12 minutes and its findings will be published soon. Scientists will be able to study its behaviour and performance in microgravity. The study of seeds, a part of the payload, will explain more about space agriculture. The mission also tested the effectiveness of reinforced carbon fibre polymer in 3D-printing technology.
Meanwhile, they are swamped with the Google Lunar XPRIZE's competition called Synergy Moon until March 2018, and a joint project to launch a "friendship satellite" with the Moscow Aviation Institute. Post this they plan to start returning calls from all over the world requesting them to manufacture the small satellite for them. The possibilities are endless for the boys, all grown up now.
Meet Ms Einstein: the London-based Kashmea Wahi, with a perfect score of 162 in an IQ test by Mensa, the oldest and most exclusive IQ society. The then 11-year-old got two more points than the projected scores of her role models Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking -- quite like other equally gifted kids Saanya Verma, Anushka Binoy, Dhruv Garg, Arnav Sharma and Rajagauri Pawar.
She learnt about the test online while researching a transfer test to get through secondary school, looking for a way to escape long hours of studying. Kashmea immediately asked her parents, both IT consultants with Deutsche Bank in the UK, to register her.
Intimidated at first, but undeterred by the number of adults in the test room, she told a reporter, "The test was easy, all you need is logic and try your hardest." The only difficulty for her was the time limit.
In future, she wants to pursue computing, a leisure activity she loves, and create user-facing games, applications and software. Her latest project is apparently the app SpeciAll, in its nascent stages, geared towards helping people in wheelchairs.