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Sriharshita Musunuri pursuing her passion for thermoelectrics

At 15 years old, Sriharshita Musunuri has a resume that would be impressive for a graduate student. Which is all the more impressive, because she’s a freshman in high school.

Photo via Girls Rock In Science & Math
Photo via Girls Rock In Science & Math

The Mill Creek, Wash., native invented a thermoelectric device that generates electricity from industrial waste heat, earning her a spot in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair’s top 20. Her work also helped her land a position on a University of Washington research team, where she’ll serve for several years.

“After rigorous literature review, and many hours of experimenting in the lab and in the machine shop, I tested a small-scale TEG (thermoelectric generator) that shows great promise in revolutionizing the way we utilize leftover thermal energy,” she said.

She’s also the president of her school’s Math Honor Society at Henry M. Jackson High School, studies flute and Indian classical dance, and volunteers for STEM-based non-profits like Girls Rock in Science and Math and North South Foundation.

“I aspire to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to major in electrical engineering and minor in biotechnology,” said Musunuri. “My goal is to create impactful technology, either in the field of disease-diagnostics and treatment or energy sustainability.”

Meet our latest Geek of the Week, and continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I conduct research into thermoelectrics, to create a device that can convert waste heat to electricity in a cost-efficient way. My work involves designing a module using environmentally-friendly, low-cost materials and shows great potential to be applied on a large scale. I do this because I know that by harnessing even a fraction of the thermal energy that we waste through all the industrial processes that occur, we can boost efficiency in a variety of sectors, and improve the way we generate electricity.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “I want people to know that thermoelectrics aren’t a technology of the future — they exist already and it is anything but impossible to generate electricity from heat with no moving parts. It is just a matter of finding the right design, combination of materials, and manufacturing process to form devices tailored towards effective waste heat recovery in specific situations. These devices are so varied in application that different types of modules can be used to recover temperatures ranging from body heat, to exhaust from automobiles, to waste heat from coal power plants and glass factories. These devices have even been used within spacecraft. My research deals with making this technology more commercially-viable so that it can be applied in more places.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “My inspiration comes from breakthroughs in science. The advances that we have made and the ones that we continue to make in terms of medicine, computing, engineering, and just about any other field are astounding and some have been large enough to change the world in profound ways. People of all ages and backgrounds have been able to make their own contribution to this vast subject, and I aspire to do the same.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “I could never live without my laptop. The amount of learning that has taken place with this single piece of technology is tremendous. I have studied everything from thermoelectrics, to astrophysics, to epigenetics, to programming on this device and I depend upon it to teach me more everyday. This is the medium in which I not only pursue academic topics and hold all the scientific and mathematical work that I’ve done up to this point, but it is also how I connect with people from all over the world.”

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “My workspace varies, depending on what I’m working on. Sometimes it’s the University of Washington Nanofabrication Facility, sometimes it’s the chemistry lab at school, and sometimes it’s just my house. Wherever I am though, I will be doing science.”

Musunuri at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “My best tip would be to dedicate your time to what your passionate about, but make sure to prioritize your duties at the same time. It was a common challenge throughout the school year to balance both science research (which requires countless hours), with my other extracurricular commitments, and schoolwork. I found it very helpful to make lists of what I needed to accomplish each day as well.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Windows — Google is life.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Never watched Star Wars.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter, because I need to be in too many places at once.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would: “Use it to create cutting-edge technology in the field of energy.”

I once waited in line for: “Testing out the Microsoft Kinect.”

Your role models: “My dad: He has encouraged me throughout my life to aim high. His knowledge and experience in his profession has taught me to achieve excellence in whatever I do. My interest in engineering and STEM was inherited from him.

Elizabeth Holmes: She founded a medical diagnostics company (Theranos) at the age of 19. Theranos is now a multibillion dollar company. Holmes’ independence, initiative, and skill have inspired me to pursue my passion for science in depth.”

Greatest Game in History: FoldIt.”

Best Gadget Ever: “Smartphone.”

First Computer: “Surface RT.”

Current Phone: “Samsung Galaxy S3.”

Favorite App: “Science News.”

Favorite Cause: “Cancer Research.”

Most important technology of 2015: “Brain Organoids.”

Most important technology of 2017: “You cannot predict where science will go!”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Don’t be afraid to let your geek shine through and infect others with your interests. Also be prepared to meet hardships on your projects. I came to the verge of giving up on thermoelectrics but it pays off to stick to it.”

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