18-year-old Mason native invents water contamination detection device, wins prize

On the surface, Mason native Laalitya Acharya seems like your average 18-year-old. She’s curious, bright, and an avid runner and violin player.

But her recent achievements are far from average.

Acharya invented a low-cost artificial intelligence device called Nereid that can detect water contamination within seconds, and she has won the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes for this invention.

Slightly bigger than a cell phone, Nereid can be placed into water pipes to detect microbial water contamination by taking microscopic images of water, running the photos through a custom neural network, and notifying local authorities so they can deal with the contamination before it can spread.

The idea for Nereid came from personal experience. On a family trip to India, Acharya and her family became ill due to drinking contaminated water despite their best efforts. When she got home, Acharya threw herself into researching the problem and found more than 2.1 million people worldwide dealt with the same problem, and that most solutions “seemed to be ineffective at mitigating this crisis at the local level.”

Acharya was naturally curious and interested in science from a young age. One of her earliest inventions was a potato-powered alarm clock, and one of her most memorable experiments was DIY Coca-Cola.

“As a kid, I loved Coca-Cola, but my parents wouldn’t allow me to have it,” she said. “So I decided that I was going to recreate this drink myself! With carbonated water, food coloring, and other supplies from my mom’s kitchen, I set off to recreate the recipe for Coca-Cola.”

The results were dubious, but her scientific mind was encouraged.

In addition to a tangible solution, Acharya founded the Nereid Project, an organization focused on raising awareness “through research, advocacy, and policy work” and “closing the water gap once and for all.” The Nereid Project also holds “Water Summits” for the purposes of raising awareness and discussing ways everyone can do their part.

As with most things, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in Acharya’s plans for these summits, and the Nereid Project had to pivot to giving virtual summits. Although this was a difficult adjustment, Acharya was able to make it work. Even with the reinstatement of in-person events, the Nereid Project has kept some online events, and these have allowed the Nereid Project to expand its reach.

The Gloria Barron Prize, founded by author T.A. Barron in 2001, awards young people who work to help their communities and the planet. Acharya was shocked and honored when Barbara Ann Richman, the director for the Barron Prize, reached out to her and broke the news to her.

“I am so honored and grateful to have won this award,” Acharya said. “It has been a goal of mine for so long and I look forward to joining an amazing community of world-changers and Young Heroes!”

Currently, Acharya studies biomedical engineering and political science at Columbia University, a path influenced by her interest in “the applications of science to public policy.” She is currently working on the next stage of Nereid’s development: Lowering the price (which is already around $75) to make it as accessible as possible, testing Nereid in the real world, and working to scale Nereid up to be implemented both domestically and abroad.

Acharya has worked with Senator Chuck Schumer, and she was recently invited to the Concordia Summit, held in conjunction with the UN General Assembly. It’s safe to say she’s already making waves.

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