Middle school students Pallavi Bhave, 14, and Joyce Tian, 13, recently won the 2013 Toshiba ExploraVision science competition, which challenges students to simulate the real research and development of a new technology. Their award-winning innovation – chosen as the winner from more than 675 teams in their region and their age group – is a hand-held device similar to a smartphone that would be able to identify and provide information on the presence or absence of common allergens in a food sample. We asked them to tell us more about their project and their recent trip to present their idea on Capitol Hill!
While neither of us have food allergies ourselves, Pallavi’s mom is intolerant to lactose, and members of her family have allergies to shellfish and nuts. One day her mom said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we just had a device that could detect what allergens are in a food?” When we started thinking about a project for the Toshiba ExploraVision competition, the idea for a food allergen detector came up again. We decided to investigate how to create this device because we knew that if it was produced, it would benefit not only Pavllavi’s family, but millions of individuals by reducing the risk of anaphylaxis.
Many of our friends are highly allergic to things like peanuts and milk and always carry epinephrine with them for emergencies. While they avoid products that contain the foods they’re allergic to, it’s still difficult for them to truly know what foods they can and cannot eat. For example, restaurants sometimes do not know exactly which allergens are in dishes, and accidental allergic reactions can result from cross-contact. Our Food Allergen Detector (F.A.D.) would be able to detect allergens in these dishes at concentrations as low as five parts per million (ppm), thus greatly decreasing the chance of a reaction.
While the F.A.D is still in the concept phase, if physically created it would be able to detect which food allergens are in a dish and display the results on a touch screen, which the user could scroll through as if it were a mobile phone. It would be a hand-held device utilizing Raman spectroscopy, which is a method requiring the shining of a UV laser beam on a food sample to detect the scattered light. A small percentage of the scattered light is shifted in frequency when reflected; this is unique to each allergen, and therefore can be used as a “fingerprint” to identify them.
Last month, we went to Washington, D.C. to accept our Toshiba ExploraVision award and we presented the project to senators on Capitol Hill. In our presentations to Toshiba executives, we explained our project and they gave ideas on how to feasibly create the F.A.D. Furthermore, we were interviewed by various local media outlets, as well as the Washington Kid’s Post. We also met Sen. Mark Warner and Bill Nye the Science Guy!
We applaud Pallavi and Joyce for their ingenuity and interest in helping further research on new technologies to help make life easier for those with food allergies. The girls intend to keep working on the device when they enter high school so that one day they can make the F.A.D. a reality!