By: Shreyoshi Chakraborti
Kiara Nirghin is a South African inventor, scientist and speaker. She is known for her award-winning work on a method to increase food security in drought-stricken areas that won the 2016 Google Science Fair. Since 2018, she has attended Stanford University as an undergraduate.
In 2013 Kiara’s home country South Africa was suffering from the worst drought in 45 years. The dry spell was so severe that government officials implemented strict restrictions on use of water and declared disaster areas in five provinces. The agricultural industry was hit hard as crops dried up and farmers went out of business with a soaring price on food.
Nirghin, who grew up in Johannesburg, was 13 and was facing crisis in her personal life. She contracted a parasite-induced disease called bilharzia, which caused her to lose weight and a weakened immune system that eventually led to a serious condition of meningitis.
After she came back home and while recovering, she kept up with her curiosity and started reading research publications. She started thinking about the social economic and environmental challenges her country was facing including the efficacy of policies to fight the drought. Days later she started tinkering with materials, and her research focused on superabsorbent polymers (SAPs), which are long strands of recurring molecules that can retain large amounts of water relative to their own weight. The research on SAP’s has been done before and the agricultural industry has been using them for quite some time; they are often applied to crops to prevent them from drying up. But industry SAPs are expensive, and the polymers weren’t biodegradable.
Nirghin’s research in the polymer chemistry made a difference as she discovered that the polymer from orange peels and avocado peels contained the same necessary properties to retain large amounts of water. The substance she created can be added to the soil and has the capacity to trap water with a sustained release. Therefore, can keep the crops hydrated during dry times. She said, “It retains the same amount of water as traditional SAP’s, but it increases soil quality as its biodegradable, also its inexpensive as farmers can make it themselves”.
In 2016, Nirghin submitted the polymer technology to the Google Science Fair where she won the grand prize. The TIME’s magazine considers her as 30 most influential teens. The discovery gave her the platform to speak about climate change, science and education.
Nirghin has been invited to speak at United Nations several times and has promoted the importance of inclusive education and encouraging women to study STEM. She is now a Stanford junior, majoring in computer science with a biocomputation track. She plans to continue advocating for the issues that are important to her while learning how to innovate in her field.