Maya began conducting scientific experiments at the age of 10. She currently attends high school in Ontario, Canada, and plans to pursue computer engineering and biochemistry in college.
She started 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.
She conducted her own experiments using equipment that she either made or that was loaned to her. It was a process of trial and error. Maya initially tried to make an incubator with a cooler and a heating blanket, but it wasn't working properly so she borrowed a manufactured one from a local school.
In 2011, after several years of experimenting on her own to create a prototype for an antibiotic that would attack harmful bacteria in the body while leaving other bacteria intact, Maya won a bronze medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair. Microsoft is a sponsor of the event as part of YouthSpark, a companywide initiative launched last year to create opportunities in education, employment and entrepreneurship for 300 million young people around the world. The next year, she received the grand platinum award and a gold medal from the science fair for her research on the safety of compounds that may help combat Alzheimer’s disease.
Maya was invited by Youth Science Canada, which puts on the fair, to participate in Canada’s first YouthSpark Live event in Ontario earlier this year. YouthSpark Live, a Microsoft YouthSpark program, creates opportunities for youth to connect with one another and use technology to positively affect their communities.
Raman Dang, 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 peers.
“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.
"For young people 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 is awareness.”
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.”