Empowering Activities: Award-Winning Young Scientist Envisions Future in STEM

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Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

Curious about how an award-winning young scientist envisions the future in STEM? We have personal insights just for you, from our very own student Nithika Karthikeyan! In fact, Nithika is not only exploring her passion for STEM, but also already doing STEM research in high school. Let’s see what she has to say about succeeding in high school and beyond!

This interview is one installment in our Empowering Activities series. To read more profiles like this, check out other posts right here on our blog!  We hope that celebrating our stellar Empowerly students will inspire other high schoolers to reach for the stars. 

About Nithika:

Nithika Karthikeyan is a rising senior at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, California. Her freshman year of high school is when her passion to combat environmental problems arose, eventually narrowing in on the global issue of plastic pollution. She channeled this passion into her work with the nonprofit organization Bye Bye Plastic Bags California, part of the global nonprofit Bye Bye Plastic Bags. As the legal board member, Nithika researches updates on laws relating to plastic bags (such as the Plastic Bag Ban) and how they are changing over time. She hopes to continue her passion of combating plastic pollution in college through future research and attending law school.

Important Awards and Accomplishments, So Far…

  • First place at Synopsys County Science Fair, Broadcom MASTERS Top 300 award and Most Promising Female Researcher Award in 2018 for her project “The Design of Algorithms to Encode English Text Using Amino Acids Using Digital Data Compression Techniques”
  • 2nd Place at Synopsys County Science Fair and 3rd place at California State Science Fair in 2017 for her project “The Effect of Genotypes on Wheat’s Phytoremediation Capabilities As Applied to Heavy Metals in Fracked Soil”
  • 1st place at Synopsys County Science Fair in 2016 for “The Effect of Water Beads on the Crop Yield of Bok Choy”
  • 3rd place at Synopsys County Science Fair  in 2020 and published an article in the Young Scientists Journal for her project “Biodegradation of Polyethylene Fragments and Microbeads using Bacillus subtilis and PSeudomonas putida”
  • Presented her work on “The Design of Algorithms to Encode English Text Using Amino Acids using Digital Data Compression Techniques,”  “The Differential Fixation of Dissolved CO2 by Different Algal Species,” “Biodegradation of Polyethylene Fragments and Microbeads using Bacillus subtilis and PSeudomonas putida” at the American Geophysical Union Conference

Wow! With all these incredible accomplishments on deck before even graduating high school, Nithika is on track to change the world. Let’s hear how she envisions the future of STEM, and why it matters to her. 


Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions! We are so excited to learn more about you and your amazing work. So…

Empowerly: Which activity(s) do you participate in that makes you feel most empowered, and why?

Nithika: Working on Bye Bye Plastic Bags has empowered me; but what has made me feel most empowered is working with neurodiverse children and teens to reduce the stigma around mental health. I am a board member on Hand In Hand, a nonprofit that works to destigmatize neurodiversity through education, webinars, and free classes. I started tutoring a student in 2020 during the pandemic. There, I started to learn about the resilience and energy neurodiverse students have. I became more passionate about working to empower these students who have historically been pushed aside just because their brains are different. 

E: How long have you been doing these activities?

N: I have been part of Bye Bye Plastic Bags and Hand In Hand since March of 2020. Before Hand In Hand from 2018 to 2020, I was a volunteer at another nonprofit, InFUSEm which also works with neurodiverse students. 

E: How did you first discover your passion(s), and when was that?

N: I first discovered my passion for combatting plastic pollution in my freshman year of high school. My school has a research program where we conduct research projects for a year and present at various science fairs, conferences, and more. During the summer before my freshman year, I Googled “major environmental problems.” Every other search result was about how microplastic pollution is harming the oceans. 

From then, I began researching ways to degrade microplastic pollution and combat the effects of plastic pollution. I realized that although my investigation might mitigate the effects of plastic pollution, I was not targeting the source of the issue. My work with Bye Bye Plastic Bags allowed me to target the problem at its source by raising awareness about the issue and providing people with ways to switch to eco-friendly alternatives. 

E: Have you faced any memorable turning points or obstacles along your journey?

N: The negatives of plastics often outweigh the positives. Starting with the harmful impacts on marine life, including bioaccumulation that causes humans to bear the toxic effects of the material. As a child, I would always carry around a plastic water bottle, because I thought having bottled water was cooler than the unfiltered tap water. At that age, I had no idea about the hazardous chemicals that make up plastic. 

Entering high school, there was a new trend: Hydroflasks and reusable straws. And of course, because I wanted to be part of the cool crowd, I begged my parents for those items. Through my research class in high school, I became exposed to various environmental issues: one being plastic pollution. I began to learn that my Hydroflask and reusable straw are not just possessions that make you seem cool; they are steps to a better environment. 

In the end I was able to realize that what might be considered cool is not always the best for a person or the community and its environment. 

E: What are your plans for the future (in high school, college, or beyond)?

N: In the future, I aim to continue my research with microplastic by majoring in Environmental Science allowing me to discover new ways to combat the effects of plastic pollution. After undergrad school, I aim to go to law school to become an environmental lawyer to be able to create and defend policies that protect the environment.

E: How has Empowerly helped you move your passions/activities forward?

N: Empowerly has helped me find issues to look into regarding research topics as well as helped guide me to look into opportunities to use my knowledge on the environment and plastic pollution. My counselor, Sheelah, notified me of a scholarship opportunity that challenged students to use their research to create creative projects. I decided to make a board game where students could learn about the negative impacts polluting companies have on the environment.

E: Anything else you would like to share with our readers?

N: I would like to ask all the readers to challenge themselves to switch to eco-friendly alternatives and this does not have to be in a huge way over a short period of time. There are still products I use that are not 100% eco-friendly but I use them because nothing else is available as an alternative. Small steps can include switching to using a metal straw or water bottle, trying to buy local produce, using reusable cloth bags, and so much more. And of course, if you are interested in joining the Bye Bye Plastic Bags family and participating in our upcoming statewide cleanup (August 21, 2021) please do check out our website (http://bbpbcalifornia.carrd.co) or email us (bbpbcalifornia@gmail.com). We love welcoming new students interested in helping the environment!

Final Thoughts:

We at Empowerly are constantly impressed by the amazing work of students in our community. If you are curious to learn more about activities that will empower your students, we are here! Reach out to learn more about our program and how we can help. Book a free consultation below to receive a customized recommendation for your college application plan.

Questions? Let us know!