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Meet the teen who just won $150,000 for inventing a device to diagnose lung disease

Maya Varma won the First Place Medal of Distinction for Innovation at the Intel Science Talent Search. (Courtesy Intel STS)

California student Maya Varma has won the top prize for innovation at one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious high school science competitions, taking home $150,000 for inventing a new device to diagnose chronic lung diseases.

“I’m so excited. I didn’t expect to receive an award, and it was such a surprise,” Varma said Wednesday in Washington, host city for the competition. “I’m so happy I can share my research with the world and hopefully make a difference.”

The 17-year-old built her device out of $35 worth of basic electronics, but it is as accurate as hospital-grade versions that cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars. She hopes it will save lives in developing countries where such a device — called a spirometer — might otherwise be inaccessible.

“People can’t afford this expensive equipment, and I decided to do something about it,” said Varma, a high school senior from Cupertino, Calif. (Her middle school was virtually next door to the world headquarters of Apple.)

Physicians can use data from Varma’s invention to diagnose and manage chronic pulmonary illnesses such as asthma or emphysema. Patients blow into the device, and a smartphone app analyzes the results. Varma developed the app: She is proficient in five programming languages.

She has applied for a patent and is planning to test the device on a wider scale. Eventually she’d like to take it to market.

Varma plans to study biomedical engineering in college. She was one of 40 finalists who came to Washington to present their research in the Intel competition, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Previous winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, Fields Medal and MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, also known as “genius” grants.

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Winners were announced Tuesday night at a black-tie gala at the National Building Museum. Besides Varma, two other teens also won top $150,000 prizes.

Amol Punjabi, 17, won first place for basic research for developing software that can help pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs to treat cancer and heart disease. He is from Marlborough, Mass.

Paige Brown, 17, won first place for projects dedicated to the global good. She is developing a water filter to remove phosphate from stormwater systems. Sheis from Bangor, Maine.

Three students were named second-place winners, taking home $75,000 each, and another three won $50,000 third-place prizes.

It’s no small thing that two of the three winners are girls, given that science and engineering are fields that have long been dominated by men.

“This milestone is an inspiring sign of progress toward closing the gender gap in technology and engineering,” Rosalind Hudnell, president of the Intel Foundation, said in a statement. “We hope these finalists’ outstanding work will inspire young people from all backgrounds to develop their interests in these fields.”