Aashutosh Sapkota, Angad Singh and Praneel Chugh are very modest about their achievement. The trio have been getting a fair bit of media attention for their breakthrough innovation, MID, a device which would help researchers better analyse zebrafish embryos with which we share almost 80 per cent of our genome.
The invention the trio is credited for is called the Movement Impeding Device (MID). Since their invention in June this year, these three Year-11 students of John Monash Science School have been participating in science fairs around the country and abroad. But more importantly, it led them to become winners of the state Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) award.
The background to the MID was a problem that researchers were facing when they were trying to view zebra fish embryos under a microscope over a long period of time. And because these embryos moved around a lot, it was difficult to get a video recording of their growth – which was what the researchers were studying.
“The researchers told us about the problem and we wanted to work on something that would immobilise the zebra fish embryos. They were having problem observing their growth over, say, 36 hours, as they moved all the time,” says Praneel.
After working at Monash University’s Fish Core lab and learning there wasn’t a standard procedure to immobilise the zebra fish embryos, the trio put in hours during and after school trying to come up with a solution. They had the support of their teachers and Principal Peter Corkill towards their endeavour.
Finally, the three young scientists came up with a solution which they called the Movement Impeding Device. “It’s a 3-D printed device,” explains Angad. “How the MID works is: it basically sits on top of the petri dish and it creates an indent inside the jell (which the researchers were originally creating with toothpicks),” he says, adding, “The indent is created inside the jell by clicking a button that is attached to a spring. When you click on the button, it pushes into the jell and prints little holes for researchers to put the embryos in.”
The idea of 3-D printing was instant but the final idea came from prototyping the actual design by trying different sizes, materials, and techniques. It all took a few months to finalise the actual model. “We tried lots of different shapes and sizes, we created different holes, we talked to the researchers and what they found most appropriate as well,” says Praneel.
Finally the breakthrough came after six months of trial and error and changing from a screw-based design to a spring-based design. The boys say the researchers were excited that they came up with something so simple that would potentially save hours and hours of their work.
“The MID worked perfectly. You sit the device on top of the petri dish which has jell inside, click the button and it creates these little indents that are precise and fit the requirements of the embryo. And then you view them through a microscope,” elaborates Angad.
The study of zebrafish is important as it unlocks the studying for degenerative diseases. The tiny creatures are able to regenerate their tissues and organs, opening up all kinds of possibilities for researchers hoping to mimic those regenerative powers in humans, the students explain. “A lot of the genetic diseases that happen in zebrafish also happen with humans, so researchers are moving away from mice. Also the advantage with zebrafish is that they have transparent embryos and weekly they can produce hundreds of them,” says Angad.
For Angad, Praneel and Aashutosh, this was a project they got through a program at school called BioEYES, a hands-on science project that brings live zebrafish into the classroom. “The project showed us zebra fish embryology and we grow our own zebra fish, we did some extension on it and we decided to do a time lapse of their growth. So while Aashutosh worked on the biology part of it studying the time lapse and recording their growth, Praneel and I thought we could do something more accurate than using a toothpick. We thought we could probably 3-D print something and that’s how we developed the MID. Engineering is an interest for all three of us and we liked the idea of innovating and developing something,” says Angad.
Principal Peter Corkill was quoted by SBS as saying, “The boys have actually made a contribution to contemporary research. I don’t know whether, in all honesty, they thought that was going to happen.”
After the completion of the project, the boys entered the state innovation awards, the AIIA award, this year. They won the state award in the senior category. “We received a trophy which is at school with our names on it,” proudly states Praneel.
The boys have taken their invention to a global platform. They presented their invention in Japan in at a science fair for schools where students from 25 countries participated. In Japan, they trio were lauded for the simplicity and effectiveness of their invention.
On the home front, the trio have done a presentation at the Graeme Clark Oration at Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. The Graeme Clark Oration is an initiative that promotes an understanding of science to the community.
What next? “Because this is adaptable, we might add more different sizes to this. We are presenting this main concept. It is a device that can be used for other projects and doesn’t have to stop at zebra fish,” says Praneel. They trio also want to licence it so they can have their names on it. “We are trying to get it published so that other researchers are aware of it,” adds Angad.
But the zebrafish is not the only spark the young minds have exhibited. Along with another co-student Amitav Madan, Angad and Praneel recently won the CHOOSEMATHS Awards for their project titled ‘Applications of Mathematics and its Models’. CHOOSEMATHS Awards celebrate mathematical achievement, creativity and excellence in Australian schools. The three will also be going to Brisbane early December to participate in International Young Physicists Tournament Australia (IYPT Australia).
The fact they are friends first makes every project interesting, says Angad.
So how do they see themselves 10 years from now? Hopefully in research or some good companies as engineers innovating or designing stuff, they concur.
Given their brilliance, one would assume these boys remain huddled over books and the lab as they switch off from their peer groups. On the contrary, Angad says, “We don’t want to overwork or study too hard because all the time you put into studying doesn’t always translate to success, it doesn’t put you further ahead of other students. Maybe, next year, when Year 12 comes along.” So they have plenty of hobbies and other interests as also studies to balance their lives.
Rest assured, these bright and talented boys are already giving you an insight into what they can deliver in the field of research and knowledge.

By Indira Laisram