India is facing an unprecedented water crisis. A warning issued by planning body NITI Aayog in a 2018 report says 21 Indian cities are likely to run out of groundwater by 2020 and that 70% of water bodies in India are contaminated. Other reports have said that millions in the country drink water contaminated by heavy metals, arsenic, nitrate and fluoride and that Punjab remains one of the worst affected states as 22 lakh of its people are dependent on water with metal contamination which in severe cases lead to poisoning.
That’s the reason why 32-year-old Dr Pooja Devi’s work is so important. A senior scientist with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Central Scientific Instruments Organisation, she is working on a smartphone aided stick platform to detect heavy metal levels in water.
With this device, people can take a water sample, test it and get the results on their smartphones through the app, says Devi, who has several awards under her belt, including the Young Scientist Award at the Indian Science Congress Association in 2019 under material science category; International Society for Energy, Environment and Sustainability Young Scientist Award 2019 and BRICS Young Scientist Fellow Award 2018.
Inspired by a Doordarshan serial, Nano Ki Duniya, on nanotechnology, Devi completed a BTech in biotechnology at Kurukshetra University, followed by an MTech in nanotechnology from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee.
Her area of work is inter-disciplinary, she says as it involves engineering in making the device, chemistry in its testing, all of which is part of a project focused on healthcare.
A PhD in sensors of water quality monitoring and energy harvesting devices from the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research, New Delhi, Devi is now working on developing an efficient photo electrode to separate hydrogen molecules from water and examine possibilities of developing clean fuel for automobiles, but it’s still at the lab level. “It will reach industry level once we are able to succeed in making hydrogen fuel on a larger scale,” she says.
Devi has successfully developed kits to quantify heavy metals in water with colour solutions, a portable electrochemical analyser to detect arsenic in water and another water and portable integrated optical system to monitor water pollutants.
“The water we get in our houses is chlorinated but we can check it for chemical levels with a chlorine monitoring kit. Neither excess nor low levels of chlorine are good. Hence, residents can be aware and test water at their level. As the product also helps in monitoring level of pollutants, the results will help people decide whether they need a water purifier or not,” she says.
Achieving so much at such young age did not come easy for Devi who belongs to Dhanda village in Haryana and studied in Hindi medium up to Class 8. After her father, keen that his children pursue higher education, sent her to an English medium school in the Kurukshetra , she struggled. Class 11 was tough when she took up non-medical “because, first, I had to understand English and then the science. I had to carry around a dictionary for two years to be able to understand science in English.”
PUSHED BEYOND LIMITS
Eldest among her siblings, Devi says, “My brother and sister are doctors and that was possible because we were pushed beyond our limits. I had cleared the junior basic teachers (JBT) entrance exam and my relatives advised my father to let me take up a teachers’ job instead of going in for higher studies, but he did not listen to them. My parents were so happy when I cleared the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE).”
Married right after getting a job at CSIR in 2010, Devi remains inspired by Marie Curie and quotes the physicist and chemist known for her pioneering research in radioactivity: “Many people ask you how you manage family. Don’t you feel guilty? I don’t feel guilty.”
Aiming to use science as a tool to bring about positive changes in society, Pooja is passionate about giving back to the community. A spiritualist, she likes dancing, listening spiritual music and spending time with her son.
Jun 13, 2019 15:33 IST
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