When a teacher at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences approached Shailey Shah about competing in the Chattanooga Regional Science and Engineering Fair, Shailey knew immediately that she wanted to participate.
But it took a little longer for the 15-year-old CSAS freshman to decide what her project should be.
Shailey wanted it to have a personal connection so she could truly be passionate about her work.
She found it, and the reward was a first-place finish at the fair and a free trip to Los Angeles, where she will compete with thousands of other students in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
The natural xylem water filter that Shailey built because of her interest in her native India will be on display at the competition May 11-16.
"I noticed that when you're over there [India] you're not allowed to drink their water because it's just so polluted and it's not clean for anybody," Shailey said. "That was one of the things I noticed that was really big. So I started researching it because I thought maybe I could help something in the world."
Though the filthy, polluted water that Shailey cleans with her xylem filter does not become safe drinking water, its level of pollution drops dramatically, and local water authorities have commended her for the work.
In addition to her science fair victory, Shailey's project earned her awards from the Tennessee American Water Co. and the Tennessee Aquarium.
"I actually wanted to go into medicine, so I was saying, 'What can I do to help someone?'" Shailey said. "That's the reason I wanted to go into medicine. Not for the salaries; I just like to help people."
She came across the idea in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study and spent close to three months putting it together while also maintaining involvement in student government, the tennis team, a debate club and a technology club.
Shailey's mother, Roma Shah, said she is proud of the work her daughter has done with the water filter.
"I only understand how it works because she explained it to me," she said with a laugh.
At the Intel ISEF fair in Los Angeles, more than $4 million in awards will be given out for the best projects, and participants will interact with judges who are among the brightest minds in science.
More than anything, Shailey said, she hopes her work will inspire other local students to try science fairs and follow their interests.
"If someone is making a science fair project, the best work requires the most work," she said. "Think about that and not just something off the top of your head. And it has to be personal, too."
Contact staff writer David Cobb at 423-757-6731 or firstname.lastname@example.org.