Neha: "Search for your passions and channel them to solve a problem you see in your community. Anyone can be a problem-solver; anyone can be an innovator."
Issue XII Emerging Empowerer Empower
Interviewed Nayonika Roy
Edited by Hrudhai Chand
20th January, 2022
Neha Shukla is a 17-year-old innovator and changemaker passionate about leveraging science and technology to create positive change in our communities. Working to solve real-world problems using STEM, she invented SixFeetApart - a wearable social-distancing device to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and was featured in the New York Times. Neha was recognised as a 2021 Global Teen Leader and The Diana Award for her innovations.
To start, we would love to know more about you as a changemaker. What moment made you realise that change-making is what you wanted to do?
Rafik: From a young age, I've always loved creating an impact on my community. Whether it was making one person smile or helping an entire community, I wanted to do things that would create a positive impact.
When I was young, I gravitated towards science and technology because of their power to solve problems and help people. I always looked at the human aspect - how I could use these tools to help someone and give back to the community that's supported me so much.
I saw scientists and engineers as the ultimate changemakers who were addressing problems and creating solutions for the people who needed it most - and I wanted to do that ever since I was young.
I've been innovating and solving real-world problems since I was 10 years old. Still, my innovation journey truly began at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when I created SixFeetApart to slow the spread of the virus. Since then, I'm beyond grateful that companies like Nasdaq in Times Square, the New York Times, ABC, and President Biden and the Royal Family have supported me and given me a platform to share my voice and vision for the future. And through that platform, I want to use my voice as a changemaker to inspire and build the next generation of problem-solvers and young innovators tackling the world's most significant problems.
A central guiding factor in my work is the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I plan to create solutions that address these SDGs throughout my innovations. Big problems like COVID-19, climate change, and educational inequalities have a deadline, and we need to come together and solve them as soon as possible.
To that end, I’ve been running global Innovation & STEM workshops to bring young people into the dialogue by sharing my simple 3-step innovation framework to inspire a new generation of young problem-solvers and changemakers. And I’m excited to release my debut book, “Innovation for Everyone: Solving Real-World Problems with STEM” in the summer of 2022 to amplify my outreach and use my voice to help students around the world get started with innovation and community impact.
You are 17 years old, and you are still immensely passionate about social impact. Have you ever faced some extra hurdles because of your young age, or is it a benefit for you?
Neha: The benefit of being a kid and being young is that you have this boundless imagination and curiosity about the world. I'm constantly asking questions and coming up with ideas for problems I observe around me, and that's because I'm a kid. Being a young innovator is the ultimate superpower because we have the power of our imagination and creativity to ideate and experiment freely. And with the support of mentors and organisations, we can translate our ideas, prototypes, and innovations into real-world solutions that impact.
So while there can be some barriers to being younger in the STEM and innovation field, I see youth and the imagination of young people as one of the most potent tools in problem-solving and innovation.
Watch our interview with Neha Shukla, Emerging Empowerer of Issue XII
In March 2020, you created SixFeetApart. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how it works?
Neha: In March of 2020, I invented SixFeetApart, a wearable social-distancing device to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic using the latest developments in ultrasonic technology. SixFeetApart is a microprocessor-based device embedded into a hat as wearable technology. It slows the airborne transmission of COVID-19 by enforcing the CDC's guidelines of a 6-foot social distance. SixFeetApart transmits short pulses of ultrasonic waves out into the environment, which reflect the sensor that mathematically calculates distance when a person comes within the 6-foot detection range.
So when a person approaches the 6-foot detection range, the device sends out live haptic and acoustic feedback to alert the user of unsafe social distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19 proactively.
Through focus group testing, speaking with members of Congress, and hearing from my community, I've created additional forms for the SixFeetApart device to be more inclusive and readily used in all settings. The SixFeetApart armband for on-the-go use and the SixFeetApart lanyard for schools and corporate offices. I’ve also developed a companion mobile app for SixFeetApart, which sends these social-distancing notifications to your mobile phone and compiles a daily safety report for the user by connecting to the device using Bluetooth. The SixFeetApart app is available on the Google Play Store for download by Android devices.
What was your awakening call for creating SixFeetApart?
Neha: I was moved to create SixFeetApart as I watched the news and saw the case numbers for COVID-19 rise rapidly every day across the world while also seeing the direct impact of the pandemic on my community. Seeing my neighbours go to the hospital and not return was a shock for me. It seemed wrong that a simple mistake of not social-distancing correctly could cause someone to lose their life. So I set out to create a solution to protect my community and my family and save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before creating SixFeetApart, I had never worked with microprocessor devices or sensor technology. So I taught myself how to build hardware, program microprocessors, and work with sensors and electronic components to create a solution to a problem I was determined to solve.
And with two months of experimentation, building, failing, and trying again - I had created the prototype for SixFeetApart. As I continued improving the device and adding more features, I began sharing my solution with my local community and globally. I was overwhelmed with support and recognition from so many wonderful organisations! This support encouraged me to continue improving SixFeetApart, advocating for vulnerable populations in COVID-19, and innovating solutions to new problems I saw around me.
Can juggling between academics, work, and extracurriculars sometimes get exhausting? How do you cope with stress at such times, and what is the one thing which keeps you going?
Neha: Creating inventions and devices to solve problems, hosting workshops and giving talks for innovation outreach, studying at school, working on publishing my book, and making time for hobbies and mindfulness can be a lot!
I can find myself getting tired or stressed out sometimes, just like all teenagers do! And what I've learned from all that is the value of taking breaks. It can sometimes be counter-intuitive, but recharging and taking time to rebalance and focus on your physical and mental health is what matters. Taking breaks, finding time for hobbies, and giving myself space to have fun and be mindful is what keeps me going! When I'm tired and need a break, I take some time to play the piano and guitar, paint with acrylics and watercolours, go on a walk outside, or spend some time with my family. I've started getting into journaling, and it's such a fun way to rewind, be grateful for the day, and gear up for the next day!
For all the young people out there, I would recommend journaling, meditation, and simply taking time off for yourself so that you can be able to help others with your innovations!
You also host and run Innovation & STEM workshops. What is that one thing you always want budding changemakers to hold on to?
Neha: Since the start of the pandemic, I've been running global Innovation & STEM workshops for students K-12, and I've impacted over 52,000 students across the world so far! I began running these workshops because I saw a massive gap in innovation in my peers. Our generation is passionate about social change, but we often don't know how to create long-term and sustainable solutions - we need a framework to innovate. So I created a simple, 3-step innovation framework that anyone can use to solve real-world problems and impact their communities. In my Innovation & STEM workshops, I share my 3-step innovation framework, teach students how to channel their passions into solutions for real-world problems, go through interactive innovation activities, and introduce them to cutting-edge emerging technologies.
To all the budding changemakers and young innovators, I want to tell you that you’re never too young to create an impact. Now is the time to take action, so find a real-world problem that you’re passionate about and leverage your creativity and imagination towards solving it. You have the power to create a positive impact on your community, so start today.
Your creation has been a significant part of the betterment of the health industry. What change do you wish to see coming in the health and wellness sector?
Neha: It's an honour to contribute to the advancement of the health and wellness sector. A change I hope to see in the future of the health industry is the personalisation of health, medicine, and wellness, whether that's personalised medicine, a customisable solution to slowing the spread of COVID-19, or other health tools that are catered to specific populations with a one-size-fits-all solution. We've already seen the beginning of personalising health and wellness tools with subscription supplements and other resources to help people address their individual needs.
Another significant change I hope to see in the future of the health sector is seeing mental health be treated and taken as seriously as physical health. Our generation of young people often struggles with mental health, especially over the pandemic. So having resources and tools to help youth handle mental health would be a massive growth and opportunity for the health sector. And I hope to contribute to that by working on new initiatives and innovations to support youth mental health.
In an interview with TEDx, you said that COVID-19 is not the root problem but an outcome. Can you elaborate more on that?
Neha: In a talk with TEDx, I shared the mindset of First Principles Thinking, which is a framework for understanding problems to solve them better. In First Principles Thinking, you ask the question "why?" repeatedly until you reach the root causes of the problem so that you address the causes rather than the surface-level symptoms of the problem.
So when I understood the problem of the rapid spread of COVID-19, I kept asking myself why COVID-19 was spreading so rapidly back in March 2020. I discovered that the root cause of the viral spread is through the airborne transmission of viral particles, and the use of masks and social distancing was the best tools we had back then to slow the spread. With new tools like vaccines and better treatments for COVID-19, we have many new opportunities to slow the spread of the virus currently. But with new variants of COVID-19 like the Delta variant and current Omicron variant, social distancing can still be a valuable tool to slow the spread of the virus while in public spaces.
I learned that the rapid spread of COVID-19 is not a problem in itself; it's an outcome of the root causes of a lack of social distancing and the airborne transmission of the virus. Using the framework of First Principles Thinking, we can break down real-world problems into their root causes to create more effective and sustainable solutions!