Harini Venkatesh won 2nd place in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge with Discovery Education for her prototype called The Comptometrist. All photos courtesy of Discovery Education, 3M Young Scientist Challenge. 2022.

When 14-year old Harini Venkatesh’s younger sister visited the eye doctor for her first checkup and came home complaining that she hadn’t been able to tell what was blurry and what wasn’t when the doctor had asked, she thought to herself, there has to be a better way to do this. “That was pretty scary, and added to the fact that I knew multiple people who did not communicate verbally (i.e. children with special needs, people who face a language barrier, etc.) it was jarring to realize that their experience at an optometrist’s office would be very different than mine.”

So she set out to find a solution and ended up winning second place in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge with Discovery Education, a worldwide edtech leader whose state-of-the-art digital platform supports learning. Her prototype, titled The Comptometrist: An Efficient Way to Determine Myopic Power, is a cost-efficient solution that cuts down the time needed to determine myopic power in a patient’s eyes. Her idea aims to eliminate crowding in clinics, report accurate measures of myopic power in seconds and closes the window of error in the eye examination process.

Harini's proposal is not only important to consider for myopia, but it also raises many questions about other ways which have potential to reexamine how eye examinations are given in order to determine a person's prescription needs.

The 8th grader from Brentwood, New Hampshire attends Phillips Exeter School and her prototype took 2nd place in the Improving Lives Award category, which honors the project that has the greatest potential to make a positive impact on the world. Here is Harini’s description of how she came up with the prototype and how it actually works.

“I created the algorithm after reading about how myopia elongated the eyeball and how this could cause retinal tears. I realized that if the retina was stretching, then I could measure features on the retina to see how badly they had stretched out and use that to calculate power.

“It works by first, capturing an image of the back of the eye using a low-cost but efficient fundus camera based on Raspberry Pi (a low cost, credit-card sized computer that plugs into a computer monitor or TV, and uses a standard keyboard and mouse). Then, an algorithm analyzes the image and locates a region of the retina, after which dimensions of this region are regressed against prescription power. Then, new images can be analyzed and extrapolated onto this model to calculate power.

“This process minimizes time spent on a checkup, reduces effort on the doctor’s part for what is a routine visit, and brings down the chance of error when calculating power,” Harini said.

Harini found out about the 3M Young Scientist Challenge with Discovery Education through a web search. “It seemed like an awesome opportunity, so I entered. I have been doing Science Fairs at my school from a young age, and the year I entered 3M, I had also advanced to the Texas State Fair and placed second in my category.”

The 3M Young Scientist Challenge with Discovery Education is one of the nation’s premier middle school science competitions. The annual challenge invites students in grades 5 through 8 to compete for an exclusive mentorship with a 3M scientist, a $25,000 grand prize and the chance to earn the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist.” (see sidebar below).

 Harini Venkatesh (l) with her mentor from 3M, Tesha Alston Dampier.
Harini’s mentor was Tesha Alston Dampier, a senior quality engineer in the biopharmaceutical purification business for 3M who has been with the company for the past 14 years. “I work with a cross-functional team that develops and manufactures a wide range of filters used in various purification steps in biopharmaceutical manufacturing. Our filters play a critical role in providing SAFE life-saving therapies around the world,” Alston Dampier said.

She said, in most cases mentor/mentee pairs are matched based on expertise and interest. “As mentors we can express our interest in a particular mentee or project, but the actual selection of pairs are made by the leadership team members. I was lucky to get paired with Harini. This is my 4th year serving as a mentor for the 3M Young Scientist Challenge and each year is filled with a new level of excitement and bright ideas from our finalist.”

Alston Dampier talked about how important it is for young people, especially young girls, to get involved in the sciences. “We know that women and minorities have historically been underrepresented in STEM careers and in higher education. There are many reasons for these gaps from gender stereotypes and bias, math anxiety, to lack of role models and lack of opportunities.

“Therefore, it’s critical that all students are encouraged, supported, and provided equal access to stem education at a young age, an age where interest and curiosity can be nurtured and encouraged. This is one way we can close the gap.

“It has been an absolute joy working with Harini. Not only is she extremely intelligent and bright, but she has this infectious personality that sparks joy and passion. I have learned so much from her as her mentor. Her drive and zeal get me excited about the next generation of young scientists.”

Watch the video above featuring Harini Venkatesh and Tesha Alston Dampier as they reflect on their journey together as mentee and mentor.

Apparently, the feeling was mutual for Harini who said, “Working with my mentor was an amazing experience! She was really awesome and helped me stay on track and complete my prototype. I was able to get guidance with parts of my project and presentation that I didn’t know how to create in order to optimize accuracy, etc., which really helped me develop my prototype to its maximum potential.

The finalists from the 3M Young Scientist Challenge with Discovery Education at the 3M Carlton Science Center in Maplewood, Minnesota.

“I would love to bring the product to market. Currently, I am working on improving the camera and implementing self-check mechanisms to further help the user take a useful photo of the retina, but once I have adequately tested the device, I would love to be able to implement it so that it could actually help lives,” she said.

As part of the Alumni Network, former finalists are eligible to apply for continued support through the annual Grant Awards. The Grant Awards provide additional funding for current Alumni projects such as the continuation of their original entry project, a new innovation or promoting science in their community.

So what’s next for the aspiring scientist who also likes to sing, act, read fantasy novels and Harry Potter fanfiction? She recently told 3M in an interview, “In 15 years, I would like to be a biomedical engineer, neurosurgeon or ophthalmologist. I would love to work in the medical field, either helping behind the scenes or through direct interaction every day.”

Harini told VMAIL Weekend that when it comes to her future career in medicine, “I’ve done math competitions for a long time, and I really enjoy being challenged with new problems and having to search for ways to twist a situation into something that I can understand and then solve. I really want to do something similar after college—get to help new patients every day, when every single person has a different background, a different illness. No two will ever be the same, and that’s fascinating to me.”

  Learn More About the 3M Young Scientist Challenge With Discovery Education 

The 3M Young Scientist Challenge with Discovery Education is nation’s premier middle school science competition and 2023 marks the 16th year of the competition. The annual challenge invites students in grades 5 through 8 to compete for an exclusive mentorship with a 3M scientist, a $25,000 grand prize, and the chance to earn the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist.”

To enter, students in grades 5 through 8 submit a one-to-two-minute video explaining an original idea using science to help solve an everyday problem. All entries are reviewed by a diverse group of judges and evaluated on their creativity, scientific knowledge, and communication skills. Videos can be recorded using a cell phone or digital camera and will not be judged on production skills.

2023 entries are currently open and are being accepted through April 27, 2023 at YoungScientistLab.com.

Previous challenge finalists have collaborated with 3M scientists to create solutions to a wide variety of real-world problems, including mid-ear infections, COVID-19, water conservation, food waste, alternative energy sources, cancer treatments, energy consumption and transportation efficiency.

America’s Top Young Scientists have gone on to give TED Talks, file patents, found nonprofits, make the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and exhibit at the White House Science Fair. These young innovators have also been named Time Magazine’s first Kid of the Year, featured in The New York Times Magazine, Forbes and Business Insider, and have appeared on national television programs such as Good Morning America, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and more.

 Finalists of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge with Discovery Education gathered at the 3M Carlton Science Center in Maplewood, Minnesota to share their ideas and inventions.
Discovery Education
Discovery Education, which partners with 3M on the Challenge, is the worldwide edtech leader whose state-of-the-art digital platform supports learning wherever it takes place. 

“A real joy of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge is the connections the students make with each other and their mentors,” said Amy Nakamoto, general manager of social impact at Discovery Education. "The Challenge inspires students to use their creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking skills to make the world a better place."

Through its award-winning multimedia content, instructional supports, and innovative classroom tools, Discovery Education helps educators deliver equitable learning experiences engaging all students and supporting higher academic achievement on a global scale. 

Discovery Education serves approximately 4.5 million educators and 45 million students worldwide, and its resources are accessed in over 100 countries and territories. Inspired by the global media company Discovery, Inc., Discovery Education partners with districts, states and trusted organizations to empower teachers with leading edtech solutions that support the success of all learners.