The Underage Scientist
The development of a prototype for an “intelligent” antibiotic. Research into medicine
for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Groundbreaking research in theoretical physics.
Despite Maya Burhanpurkar’s list of scientific discoveries and achievements, she
still has difficulty convincing other researchers to give her space in a laboratory.
That’s because she’s 14 years old and in the 10th grade.
"What’s been most important for me is following my own curiosity about a subject
and seeing where it leads. I think so much more amazing things can happen when students
take learning into their own hands."
work on her first significant breakthrough when she was barely 10, when an interest
in how antibiotics work led her to build her own microbiology lab in the basement
of her parents’ house in a small town about two hours north of Toronto. Four years
later, she has been named as one of her nation’s emerging leaders on Canada’s “Top
20 under 20” list and is now producing a documentary on climate change.
“I’ve always been really curious and passionate about science,” Maya said, adding
that while some scientists were interested in working with her, she was just too
young to be in their labs. Some of those research spaces had liability restrictions
that blocked them from hosting a young person.
Maya cruises in an inflatable boat near icebergs in Disko Bay, Greenland, with Anne
Petaulassie, an Inuit elder. Maya made the impact of climate change on local populations
in the Arctic the focus of a recent trip that she will turn into a documentary film.
the citizenship and corporate affairs manager for Microsoft Canada, says of Maya:
“She is a little bit of a child genius. She’s pretty extraordinary.” At YouthSpark Live, Dang said it was clear that Maya was also a “natural leader” among her
“Her gumption, attitude, and willingness to not just do this sort of life-changing
work, but to inspire other students around her to do the same thing,” made her stand
out, Dang said.
Maya’s scientific accomplishments have opened doors to other opportunities, including
a recent two-week journey to the Arctic. She used her time on that trip, which included
a sea journey from Greenland to the Canadian Arctic on an icebreaker boat, to take
video footage and conduct interviews for her newest project: a documentary on the
impact that climate change has on people today.
She talked with people in villages whose cultural practices of hunting and fishing
are fast falling victim to changes in nature, such as thinning ice, and in some
places, the disappearance of ice. Maya is working with the Ontario Ministry of Education
to distribute the film after she completes it, a connection she made through her
other scientific endeavors. She is also working with Microsoft for a potential sponsorship
of the documentary.
in particular, I think ‘climate change’ ... are two words that have been hammered
into us since we’ve been going to school, but I don’t think it has been presented
to us in the proper way,” she said, adding that young people need to hear more about
real-world effects of the changing climate as opposed to high-level discussions
about the science.
Her goal is to raise awareness about what is happening today because of climate
change and to convince young people that they can help to slow the effects. Maya
said she is optimistic about the ability of young people to make a significant difference
in how the nations throughout the world respond to the challenge.
“Youth have power to do something about climate change,” she said. “The first step
Maya’s work with Microsoft has also shown great potential for her being a powerful
force for making positive changes in the world, Dang said. “I think she’s got something
special in her. I think it’s innate; I think it doesn’t come around very often.
These sorts of individuals have tremendous potential to enact change and inspire
others to do the same.”
Maya said she is not sure where she eventually will focus: in medical research,
science, mathematics, environmental studies, or something else entirely. “What’s
been most important for me,” she shares, “is following my own curiosity about a
subject and seeing where it leads. I think so much more amazing things can happen
when students take learning into their own hands.”