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Ashoka alumna wins New York Academy of Sciences’ Tracking Coronavirus Challenge

Despite no formal STEM training, Esha Datanwala, a recent English and Media Studies graduate, won the Challenge hands down

Shreya Chatterjee

4 September, 2020 | 10 min read

The announcement went live and simultaneously Esha received an email which adjudged the winner of theNew York Academy of Sciences’ (NYAS) Tracking Coronavirus Challenge 2020. Visibly elated, while wishes kept pouring in, Esha sat down for the interview. 

I asked how she was feeling and a thrilled Esha said, “I feel overwhelmed. I didn’t expect this, of course – not at any point throughout the process. It started out just as an opportunity to channel my energy towards something meaningful. The feeling hasn’t sunk in! It’s been over 2 weeks and I still haven’t been able to soak this up. I am hoping it will soon.” 

The Challenge asked participants to design an effective syndromic surveillance network to better understand the current pandemic and/or prevent future Coronavirus outbreaks.  

Esha explained, “A syndromic surveillance network is one that is integrated well enough into society to be able to predict viral outbreaks before they happen and expand. We were given existing coronavirus-related data sets as well as access to other resources to better understand syndromic surveillance.”  

The Challenge began on May 08, 2020, with 60 teams participated from around the world. For round 1, everyone had to submit an executive summary and a presentation of their solution. From this pool of 60, 10 were shortlisted for a live pitch event with NYAS’ panel of judges. Each team was given 7 minutes to present, and then an additional 3 minutes for Q&A. The pitch event ended with a live audience poll where people who tuned in could vote for their favorite solutions. The team with the most votes got an additional 2 points for their final evaluation, and the second team got an additional 1 point.  

But Esha didn’t get any of the additional points! 

She said, “I went with the simplest solution I could think of and put all my time into making sure that it was premised on provable correlations, and then put in more time to make sure I was explaining it in the most concise yet accurate manner possible. When I was shortlisted, it was already more than I expected. Everything since then was just bonus.” 

Additionally, the teams who were in the finals with her were mostly Master’s’ and Ph.D. students specialising in Medicine or Public Health from all over the world. “I stood out against formally trained students, researchers, and academics, which is something I particularly cherish,” said Esha.
 

And it got even better!  

Esha did not have a formal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) training and yet she won, thanks to her sheer perseverance.

But what made her apply to the Challenge in the first place? Esha said, “When I was in high school, my mother introduced me to The Junior Academy – a programme by NYAS. The Academy is a community of students, mentors, and leaders who are constantly trying to find solutions to the world’s STEM-related problems. I applied, and I got in. 

I then participated in The Academy’s Winter 2017 Public Health Challenge, which was to create an Ebola Survivor Observation System that could help survivors regulate their post-syndrome symptoms before they became detrimental. It was a team challenge, and we were the winning team. At the time, I was still pursuing a few STEM subjects.”  

Esha has always held a deep interest in and appreciation for STEM.  

She said, “I was originally going to major in Physics before switching to English and Media Studies.”   

So, what inspired her to participate was her very desire to dip her feet into the STEM arena again. She was more focused on the innovation part than the technicalities. The Challenge was about the same, too.  

Her solution SYNSYS is a syndromic surveillance system designed for the public and private healthcare sectors. The system exclusively uses public domain data in this iteration: from Google Trends, census data, and satellite data. These data sets and visualisations can be analysed and used to predict outbreaks before they happen, as well as compute high-risk areas so as to prepare resources and deploy them effectively.  

The system is split into two implementations: pre-emptive, and combatant. The pre-emptive system takes into consideration data from Google Trends. This works under the assumption that a majority of people are more likely to self-medicate if they fall ill and thus will want to search for their symptoms online to know what over-the-counter medication they should take. Any abnormalities or variances that are detected in real-time by the system will be flagged for analysis and scrutiny. This system will be able to detect an outbreak weeks before official diagnoses. 

The combatant system takes into consideration traffic and population density data from satellites. This works under the assumption that during the early phases of an outbreak, people will continue to operate per usual, and thus will travel and gather per usual. The information gained from traffic and population density numbers will be able to identify hot-spots and common travel routes, therefore allowing the delineation of high-risk zones. Resources can then be deployed efficiently to tackle the virus in those zones, not allowing it to spread further. 

Esha said, “This system provides a very sustainable and scalable approach to the problem of insufficient syndromic surveillance systems. It can be developed further to take into account flight and train data, private domain data from hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, as well as absenteeism data. ” 

So what is her message to the prospective applicants for the Challenge, especially those who don’t have any formal STEM training?  “

What I have found is that to tackle challenges like this one, what you need more than technical expertise is an interest in the challenge topic. When you are interested in solving the problem, it doesn’t matter where your formal training lies, because you can use the techniques you have picked up over the years to critically engage with the challenge question in your own way,” Esha said. 

And there is no correct way to approach a problem, as long as you understand the problem – so that is where you should focus.

What an inspiring thing to say! 

For her solution, Esha is currently looking for ways to develop it into a working programme. She said, “The resources it requires are substantial, not to mention the technical expertise required to actually develop it.”  

We reached out to the New York Academy of Sciences about Esha and they were all praise for her. 


“Esha competed with teams made up of young people with training in public health and epidemiology. Esha, instead, drew upon a wide variety of other knowledge and skills to develop a strong solution to our Tracking Coronavirus Challenge. This shows the value of interdisciplinary approaches in problem-solving. We are very happy to have engaged with Esha over the last several years. With a variety of STEM programmes, the Academy is working to support bright and ambitious students like her. We wish Esha great success as she continues her studies. And we look forward to her continued association with the New York Academy of Sciences. 

– Chenelle Bonavito Martinez; Vice President STEM Talent Programs. 


We were about to wrap up the interview, Esha paused for a while. She is thankful to Ashoka for the platform and the interdisciplinary education the University has provided to her. She said, “Ashoka helped me primarily through its curriculum. I have taken 100-level Physics classes, STEM foundation courses, and a 100-level Chemistry class during my time here. 

During Monsoon 2019, I took a Media Studies course by Professor Maya Mirchandani called Disinformation, Rumor, and Propaganda in the Digital Age. We had a module on data extraction and mining, introduced by Professor Debayan Gupta from the CS Department, and how we could use those techniques to better engage critically with journalistic narratives.  

So STEM involvement hasn’t just been limited to STEM classes – it’s been pervasive through other departments as well. I think that’s been the largest contributing factor from Ashoka: the fact that practices from all departments kind of flow together and blend with each other.” 

She believes that all of this has been possible thanks to the liberal and interdisciplinary curriculum that Ashoka offers, and it makes her really happy to call this university her Alma Mater. 

Come January 2021, she will be heading to The New School in New York City for an MS in Media Management. “It’s a STEM-designated Master’s degree and I couldn’t be happier,” concluded Esha. 

Esha Datanwala is a recent graduate in English and Media Studies from Ashoka who did not have formal STEM training and yet provided a solution to the world’s deadliest pandemic.

To know more about her project, click here.  

Esha has also been featured by NYAS. Click here to read the interview. 


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