The winner of the prestigious science award believes in hard work and making the learning process fun. In an exclusive interview with ParentCircle, Samay Godika talks about the competition and more.
By Leena Ghosh and Ashwin Lobo
According to a report by the World Health Organisation, around 100 to 150 million people around the world suffer from asthma. In India, an estimated 15-20 million battle with this chronic disease. So does Samay Godika, a 16-year-old student from National Public School, Koramangala, Bengaluru.
In his winning video for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, the teen looked at the role played by circadian rhythms or the body clock, in treating diseases, including asthma. His video won him a scholarship worth Rs 2.9 crores. Incidentally, he ends the video by pointing out that his name in Sanskrit means ‘Time’, a concept he explores thoroughly in the video.
Samay beat 13 finalists and his video was selected amongst 8,000 entries to earn the top spot. Back in India from the US, reality is still sinking in. But Samay has no intention of sitting back and resting on his laurels. He sits down for a quick and exclusive chat with ParentCircle before heading for his computer classes. Following is an excerpt.
How was your first day back at school after winning the award?
My classmates were very excited. We were all talking about it in class.
How was your experience participating in the competition?
It was a great experience because I learnt so much from so many people. All the finalist’s videos were amazing and if you go watch them, you’ll learn about so many different topics ranging from physics to maths to life sciences. We formed a community and it was not always about the competition. In the end, the competition is about learning. People from over 190 countries participated and I learnt so much from all of them.
So, more than winning, it was about learning for you?
Yes, definitely. In the end, this competition was about making learning fun for everyone. All the semi-finalists and finalist’s videos were really good and I’m sure that each video had an impact on people across the world.
Through the competition, did you feel nervous or intimidated and how did you deal with it?
I was nervous throughout. At the beginning of the competition, several thousand people had applied. Even on stage, I was nervous. But everything went well. I got to talk to so many scientists and learn from them. My biggest support, my family, was there. The people from the Breakthrough Foundation were also very nice to me. All the support I got, helped me get through the competition.
What were your thoughts when you reached the semi-finals?
I reached the finals last year as well, so I was pretty hopeful of reaching the semi-finals this year. But after that, I was very unsure and nervous. For the finals, I was really excited. Everything happened like a dream from that point on and I was just waiting to see what would happen.
You reached the finals of the competition last year as well. What inspired you to try again?
I was not disheartened after missing out on winning, the first time. Rather, I was excited to give it another shot. I knew I wanted to participate again, and I was searching for topics. When I came across circadian rhythms, it was still very early. So, I had a lot of time to prepare. I divided the script writing into different stages. None of my work was last-minute, so I never really felt any pressure.
How did you decide to work on circadian rhythms?
I’ve suffered from asthma since I was a child. In simple terms, circadian rhythms regulate our body clocks and sleep cycles. But there’s more to them. It’s a whole body clock that each organ in our body follows. The superchiasmatic nucleus in our brain resets the body clock of these organs. That’s also chronotherapy, which I think is where the future of medicine is headed. When medicines are given in sync with one’s circadian rhythm, that is when diseases are most vulnerable. The circadian rhythm causes some simple things such as jet-lag but disruptions in the circadian cycle can also lead to problems ranging from diabetes to dementia. Basically, I wanted to know the most effective way to medicate my asthma. This led me to do research on circadian rhythms.
How did you go about making your video?
I decided to open my video with some thought-provoking, interesting facts like ‘Olympic records are more likely to be broken in the afternoon’. I thought this would grab the attention of viewers. Then, I explained the circadian cycle and the biology behind it. And concluded with a formula which can be applied in our everyday lives. I have a YouTube channel and I don’t just do education videos. I upload videos for fun, because that’s my hobby. I also have a passion for science. This competition gave me the opportunity to combine video-making with science.
Did you have mentors who encouraged your passion for science?
My teachers in school have always encouraged me to pursue science. In school, apart from textbook work, we also go to the lab at least a couple of times a week. We also use a lot of visual aids and representations. This helps us get a better idea of what we’re learning. Simply reading a textbook is not enough to stimulate interest in science. In this day and age with the ubiquity of smartphones and advancements in technology, there’s a real need to keep millennials interested in the subject.
What subjects do you like? Are you more interested in physics or biology?
Many people say that it’s advisable to focus on one subject. To a certain extent I agree that it’s good to focus and become the best at one area. But I’m very interested in cross-disciplinary activities like combining physics and biology. In this competition, I combined two of my interests: video-making and biology. I want to pursue more projects like this that involve combining different fields of instruction to address complicated problems. There are many people who focus on specialising exclusively in one field and become really good at it. But I think that it’s good to have interests in diverse fields and synchronise them to make something new.
What do your teachers do differently?
Now that we’re in high school, our teachers take us to the lab pretty regularly. Even in middle school, they used to take us to the lab so we could observe experiments. They have always tried to help us see what’s happening practically. I think this really makes a difference, rather than simply teaching from a book.
Now that you’ve won this international competition, do you feel a little overwhelmed with the expectations it brings?
I don’t feel overwhelmed. It still hasn’t sunk in fully. I get a $250,000 dollar scholarship for college and this will definitely open up a lot of options that I hadn’t thought of before. There’s still a lot of hard work to do. I still need to go through the application process and write the exams necessary to get accepted into a good college. For whichever college that accepts me, I can avail the scholarship.
So, which colleges are you planning to apply to?
Well, I’m still in class 11, so I have a year to figure that out. I need to do some research to figure out which programmes are interesting and which colleges are the best. When I was in San Francisco for this competition I visited the Stanford campus. A few years previously, I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for an entrepreneurship programme. I never dreamed that I would be able to go to colleges such as these. But now that I have the scholarship, I would be very grateful if I get to go an Ivy League college.
There are many other children out there who aspire to win the Breakthrough Challenge. What is your advice for them?
The Breakthrough Challenge is open to everyone and there are many other competitions like this. I would encourage interested students to participate in competitions such as these which stimulate and encourage creative scientific thinking. Just participate, for even if you don’t win, you learn so much. You get to interact with an entire community too. You don’t just have to limit your learning to what is taught in school. School is helpful but then everyone has to put in more effort outside of school. If you’re interested in various things, it’s not just about having to do them, it’s about wanting to do them. From an early age, I have been interested in various subjects, so I look up different websites to learn more.
How do your parents motivate you?
My parents have never pressured me to learn in any way. But they’ve always guided me to develop an active interest in learning. They introduced me to websites and various other resources that help further my learning. They’ve always tried to make learning fun in different ways. And I think that’s what’s important — making learning fun — because if learning is just textbook reading, not many people are going to be interested.
What do you do in your free time?
I read a lot. Mostly autobiographies of interesting people like Elon Musk who founded Tesla or Phil Knight who co-founded Nike. Each of them have followed different paths to reach where they are today and it’s interesting to learn from them and see how they overcame their challenges. One book that has really inspired me is the autobiography of Tom Brady. He’s a professional American football player. He came into the National Football League almost as an afterthought. But he worked really hard and right now he’s one of the most successful people to have ever played the game. I’ve kept up with his story throughout. It’s amazing to see how he’s kept working hard throughout his life.
It’s amazing to see that even though you are interested in science, you draw inspiration from someone who’s good at sports.
Yeah, in the end it’s all about hard work, I think. Whatever field you’re in, you need to put in hard work to become the best. If you’re hard working that will take you much further than if you’re just talented.
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