Sai Varanasi is an NC Science and Engineering Fair Alumna who lived in Pinehurst, NC through her middle school years. She now lives in Chapel Hill. A graduate of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM), Sai is a second year mechanical engineering student at Georgia Tech where she is involved in research and also holds a position as a TA. While her professional interests focus on Energy and Sustainability, in her personal time she likes to bake and to play the tabla (Indian subcontinent Hand Drums).
Sai has been interested in science since elementary school. She remembers that she enjoyed being able to do experiments. Even though now she sees that they were very basic, they were always interesting to her. She found joy, not necessarily in discovering something new, but in being able to learn things from observation. Sai is primarily interested in physics and the environment. She shared,
“Physics, because I want to know how things work and It is also always fun to blow things up and the environment, because I think it is so important that we preserve it.”
Sai feels that her involvement in science and engineering fairs sparked her interest in research. “Before NCSSM I thought I would never do research. I think it was a lack of understanding of what research was. Now I definitely want to do research. Science fair made me want to join a lab in college.” In addition, she attributes a growth in confidence and speaking skills to the experiences noting that she could see a large difference in herself between her junior and senior year. She felt that speaking to a lot of judges was really helpful in pushing her presentation skills and design of her next experiment. With each judge bringing their own experience and questions, it drove her to think a lot about both what she was doing and things that she had not taken into consideration before then.
Her science fair experiences happened in her junior and senior year while she was a student at NCSSM. In her junior year she worked on a team project that involved stacking balls and trying to figure out how many could be stacked in a tetrahedral pattern. The goal was to connect it to the coefficient of friction, but ultimately they learned that they did not collect enough data. Upon reflection she feels that as it was the first time she had ever done anything like this. Not knowing exactly what to expect, she felt that in order to be more prepared and confident they could have spent more time on the project. The experience of speaking to the judges helped them to better understand what types of specific questions their research could have answered if they had gathered more conclusive data. Sai felt that this was a unique opportunity to grow, noting that In the past she had always done the type of tasks that had more structure. She saw research as very different, an opportunity to do a project that results in more questions which can be more intimidating, but also more rewarding for her.
Embracing the opportunity to pursue additional research and to push herself to grow, in Sai’s senior year, she completed an additional research project. This project involved building an automated skylight polarimeter which measured the polarization of skylight.
Sai explained that, “Sunlight is completely unpolarized, but when it scatters off particles in the atmosphere it becomes partially polarized. This device measured how much it became polarized in different parts of the sky. I compared this data to the air quality index at the time the data was collected and found a correlation. Although more data would be needed to prove this, it implies we can tell how polluted the atmosphere is on any given day by measuring skylight.”
Her research found a correlation between the air quality index and the polarization curve, leading to a new method for testing air pollution/air quality. Based on her lessons learned from the prior year’s experience she spent a lot more time on the design and implementation of the experiment and also on the presentation of her results. Another support that Sai feels helped to improve her work was participating in a research class, taught by Dr. Jon Bennett. In this class they frequently practiced communicating their research effectively and responding to questions. Her project from this year was nominated to move on to the NC Science and Engineering Fair, where she was awarded the American Meteorological Society Senior Special Award.
Sai is now a sophomore at Georgia Tech where she works in a lab using thermodynamics to study electrochemical systems. The focus of the systems is sustainability. One example of the work they are doing is looking at a membrane in a system to create fertilizers in a “cleaner” way. A focus in the lab this semester is working on negative carbon emissions, which again ties her passions together by using the properties of physics to have a positive impact on the environment.
At Georgia Tech her initial major was environmental engineering, but this year she switched over to mechanical as she found that this allowed her to spend more time building things. Sai wants to apply biology and chemistry knowledge to contribute to sustainable technology solutions. While Sai is well aware of what she enjoys, she is not exactly sure which career path she will take to leverage these interests. She truly enjoys research, but is not sure whether that will lead her to pursue a PhD. She feels confident that she will pursue a Masters and is considering moving into the working world at that point, but is keeping the option open to complete a PhD and go into corporate research on sustainability. She is hopeful that experiencing an internship will inform her decision.
When asked to provide you 1 piece of advice for a young person who is interested in Science or Engineering Sai said,
“I would say don’t be afraid of failure. It seems like everyone says that, but it is very true. This fear was a hesitation for me to try this and do things like applying for the research class at NCSSM. It is so important to go into things not knowing what is going to happen, because you have to accept that risk in order to get that reward.”