Mass. Academy of Math and Science student earns trip to international science fair

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By Adway S. Wadekar, Contributing Writer

Mass. Academy of Math and Science student, Amrita Thirumalai
Photo/submitted

Westborough – Amrita Thirumalai, 16, earned a bid to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which was to be held in Anaheim, Calif., in May. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, ISEF, the world’s largest science and engineering fair, was canceled. The Society for Science and the Public, the organization that runs the fair, hosted an online, non-competitive version of the fair to allow finalists to display their work.

Thirumalai’s work is aimed at helping those who use sign language to communicate more effectively. She explained that there is a divide between those who use sign language and the general population. She also said that although past research has tried to bridge this gap, efforts to do so have been largely unviable and ineffective.

“Researchers have worked on the sign language glove for decades,” Thirumalai said. “But it’s not a viable product for those in the deaf community because it doesn’t allow people to sign naturally, thereby slowing down the signing rate.”

Last summer, Thirumalai volunteered at the Seven Hills Foundation, an organization that allows people with disabilities to participate in group activities. She said that working with people at Seven Hills sparked her interest in creating solutions for communication.

Thirumalai’s work uses a sensor to track various hand movements, and then a trained supervised machine learning system to interpret those gestures, ultimately translating them into letters and numbers. She conducted this work at home under the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Program, in which all juniors at the school are required to take on a year-long research project.

The top students out of the junior class are invited to participate in the Worcester Regional Science and Engineering Fair (WRSEF). Ordinarily, those that win top awards at the fair become members of the Massachusetts delegation to Regeneron ISEF. However, this year, because Worcester Polytechnic Institute canceled all in-person events due to the coronavirus, each school was asked to submit project materials from two students so that the judges of WRSEF could determine those who would be part of the Massachusetts delegation to ISEF.

Thirumalai was most looking forward to meeting a diverse array of people at ISEF and learning about their projects. Although she missed the opportunity to compete at the highest level of research in high school, she hopes to continue with her work. She presented her work to a director at Seven Hills who agreed that her work could be a viable product. She wants to further test her product with people who attend Seven Hills’ programs in order to collect more data for further experiments.

She is also seeking mentorship for her continued work.

Outside of school and her research, Thirumalai enjoys to dance, sing, and is an active participant in her school’s robotics team. Her favorite subjects in school are mathematics and computer science. She is interested in studying computer science after graduating from high school.