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Former Junior Academy Member Wins Tracking Coronavirus Challenge

Recent Media Studies Graduate Places First in the Academy’s Coronavirus Surveillance Challenge

Published August 25, 2020

By Roger Torda

Former Junior Academy Member Wins Tracking Coronavirus Challenge
Former Junior Academy Member Wins Tracking Coronavirus Challenge

A recent media studies university graduate with a strong interest in STEM has won the New York Academy of Sciences’ Tracking Coronavirus Challenge.

Esha Datanwala, who joined the Academy’s Junior Academy four years ago, competed among 60 individuals and teams in designing a system to predict and monitor pandemic outbreaks. Datanwala wins $5,000 for her solution, called “SYNSYS”, which uses public domain mined data from Google Trends, social media sites, census databases and satellite imagery.

Datanwala who is from Mumbai, India, and who graduated this year from Ashoka University in New Delhi, was among ten finalists that presented solutions to the Challenge to a panel of experts in academia and the pharmaceutical industry.

We asked Datanwala about herself and about her experience with the Challenge. Here are her responses.

Why did you enter the Tracking Coronavirus Challenge?

I found the challenge question really pertinent. A question, I think, on a lot of people’s minds has been whether we could have empirically predicted this pandemic weeks or months before it really kicked in. In a lot of countries the response kicked in too late, which caused the virus to spread rapidly.

This challenge seemed (and was) really difficult to crack, which also pushed me into entering. I actually found out about it about 10 days before the deadline so I spent those 10 days researching and experimenting as much as possible. I don’t think I slept very much during that time.

What did you find especially valuable, interesting, and challenging about the competition?

It’s such an important challenge because it’s not just limited to COVID-19. One of the things I focused on was that the system should be able to detect other possible coronavirus outbreaks as well, which made it challenging because one has no idea how potential coronaviruses can mutate and develop.

The live pitch event was an amazing and valuable opportunity as well – listening to other participants talk about their own solutions and ideas was really enriching, especially because nearly all of the other participants were already established and experienced in STEM/Public Health academia. As someone with nearly no formal training related to this challenge question, it was insightful to listen to the hypotheses and solutions of people who are formally trained.

When did you first join the Junior Academy, and why did you join?

I first joined the Junior Academy in 2016. My mom had magically found the website one day and she was really thrilled by the premise of the Academy. At the time, I was in my senior year of high school and I was studying physics and computer science as a part of my curriculum. I was instantly interested because of the opportunity for growth and learning that the Academy offered – and, of course, the challenges as well. Fun fact: I was also a part of the winning team for the JA Public Health Winter 2017 challenge!

Because of the distance, I’ve never been able to physically attend any seminars or talks held by the Academy with the exception of the 2017 GSA Summit, which I was able to attend because of my aforementioned win. I spent three days at the Academy, engaging with the workshops and talks that were held for JA members. It was truly an unforgettable visit!

Could you tell us more about your interest in STEM?

I have always held a really deep appreciation for STEM. I enjoyed my STEM classes in high school (even when they became extremely challenging). That carried over to college – I actually enrolled as a prospective computer science major, and then switched to physics, and then finally to English & media studies (long story). Despite my eventual major, I grasped at every opportunity I could to take STEM classes. I’ve just found technology and science to be such an important part of everyday life and I’ve always wanted to dive as deep as possible into understanding how all of it works symbiotically.

When did you first become interested in STEM topics? Who may have influenced you?

My parents were definitely the first influences – l they say I’ve been hooked since I was 2, because I would constantly spend time on my father’s laptop. They also encouraged my STEM education a lot. I had a physics teacher in my junior year of high school who made me fall in love with the subject – she was an astrophysicist. Coding and programming have also been constants in my life since about middle school, which was when I was first introduced to it. (Not heavily, a little bit.) I remember having a lot of women teach my STEM classes in high school, and that was something that really helped me openly engage with STEM topics. It’s always really valuable to see aspects of your identity represented in fields in which you hold an interest.


How do you combine your interest in STEM and other fields? Especially when you were at the university, in light of your coursework in English and media studies?

My university—Ashoka University, India—is a huge proponent of a liberal arts curriculum. Because of this, I was able to take STEM classes even while completing my major’s requirements. I’ve taken my college’s 100-level physics classes, in addition to a CS foundation course, and then a 100-level chemistry class in my final semester. In my Monsoon (or Fall) Semester in 2019, I took a media studies course about Disinformation and Propaganda in the Digital Age with Professor Maya Mirchandani. During that time, we had a Professor from the CS department—Professor Debayan Gupta—give us an introduction to data mining & extraction. During that same semester, along with 300-level English classes, I was also taking Professor Gupta’s Foundations of Computer Programming course, which was an intro to Python as well as programming logic.

I’ve found that I can’t be completely satisfied with my academic experiences if they are completely devoid of STEM engagement.

What will you be studying at The New School in New York?

I will be studying media management come Spring! It’s an MS degree that’s also STEM-designated, so I’m really excited for it!