By Kala Herh

As a schoolgirl, Kiara Nirghin found a solution for South Africa’s drought crisis; now, she’s using that platform to champion gender equality in STEM Learning.

One day, Kiara Nirghin was driving to her aunt’s house when she noticed something unusual on the side of the road. While on her route to her aunt’s, she often drove past large municipal dams, but this time something was off—the water levels inside the dams were strikingly shallow. At the time, the dangerously low water levels reflected the larger issue of water scarcity in South Africa. In 2013, the country was reeling from the worst drought in 30 years. It was a climate crisis so severe that the government had implemented strict water restrictions and declared disaster areas in five provinces. During that time, the agricultural industry was hit particularly hard as crops dried up and farmers struggled to keep up with food demand. But, unlike other teenagers her age, Nirghin took the issue to heart, beginning to think of potential solutions. 

“Immediately, I was like, ‘Ok, what can I do?’ I knew I didn’t have any background experience, but I still wondered if I could tackle this from a young person’s perspective, in a fresh way,” she tells Mission. For the next 16 months, Nirghin spent her free time pondering, researching, and experimenting with potential solutions. After reading several research publications, she explored a possible path forward, one that was both biodegradable and low cost. Nirghin’s unique solution to the country’s problem came in the form of polymers that can hold water reserves hundreds of times their own weight and prevent crops from drying up. “I was young at the time, but I knew the solution for this could be based on existing technologies,” she recalls. “I just started looking at the problem and how I could break it down into something that I could solve.”

Nirghin’s research focused on superabsorbent polymers, or SAPs, which are materials made of long strands of recurring molecules and can retain large amounts of water relative to their weight. SAPs are nothing new to the agricultural industry; in fact, they are often applied to these situations where they are used on crops to keep them from drying up. However, Nirghin’s innovation is unique: while industry SAPs are expensive and non-biodegradable, often containing harmful chemicals; hers are sustainable. “For this solution, I remember coming home after school, when all my friends were on summer vacation, and I was in the garage measuring soil moisture because I thought it was interesting, and I was passionate about the issue,” she recalls.  

Nirghin began investigating organic materials that could create a structure similar to that of chemical SAPs. After months of trial and error, she created a unique polymerized mixture of orange peels and avocado skins. The substance she produced is a white powder that can be added to the soil. When water is added, this powdery substance will hold the liquid and eventually release it over a long period of time. The resulting innovation keeps the crop hydrated, even during dry periods. Not only can her unique mixture absorb and carry about 300 times its weight in liquid relative to its own mass, but it is also a sustainable solution that closes the waste gap by using byproducts from the juice manufacturing industry. 

“I’ve always been super curious about the world around me,” she shares candidly. “That curiosity started when I was young, and my brother and I would always tinker around with different things. He would take a magnifying glass, and we would play around in the sun with it. Since then, I’ve always gravitated towards STEM.”

Nirghin’s ingrained passion for science, coupled with her relentless curiosity, led to a groundbreaking innovation that now improves millions of lives. Her innovation was later honored as the Grand Prizewinner in Google’s 2016 Science Fair and led to a placement as Time Magazine’s Top 30 Most Influential Teens. And perhaps the most incredible thing about this all was that Nirghin was only 16 years old when she devised this solution. At such a young age, Nirghin captured the science community’s attention and, ultimately, propelled herself to national headlines. This exposure also gave her the platform to address the issues she cared about most: education, gender equity, and climate change. 

“For those people who deny climate change, I just want them to look around,” she says, taking a brief moment to address the issue most pressing to her. “There are a lot of ways that climate change is manifesting in our everyday lives, and it’s only going to increase from here. Climate change is so fundamental to who we are and how we live and breathe every single day.”

But besides speaking out against climate change and the changing planet, Nirghin is also a staunch advocate for female representation in STEM fields. Right after she took home the coveted science fair win, the United Nations invited her to their headquarters in New York City to speak at their International Women’s Day conference. There, she also spoke about the climate issues close to her heart, education’s ability to drive change, and the importance of engaging young women in STEM. “I was honored to be able to attend the UN Women’s panel and be able to express my thoughts and my opinions,” she says of her experience. “I think it’s really powerful because it shows we can have spaces where young girls and people like myself can share their voices.”

“I always get asked why girls should get involved in science and technology? And I always answer the question by saying, ‘Why should they not?’ Suppose we’re trying to find a solution to curing cancer, and you bar women from science fields. In that case, you’re already decreasing the ability to find that solution by 50% because fewer people are thinking about it,” she says. 

Now, Nirghin has her efforts pointed toward technology. As a student of Stanford University, the 22-year-old is studying computer science with a biocomputation track. She is currently focused on “understanding how we can leverage artificial intelligence technology and biocomputation to solve large-scale problems”. Nirghin is especially interested in learning about artificial intelligence and how it can help future generations streamline innovation. “I want to inspire young individuals from a variety of backgrounds with everything I do,” she says. “I want them to know that they can get into spaces where they’re not traditionally represented and that from there, they’re able to implement their ideas.” 

Nighrin’s message is a critical one as recent reports show that women are less likely to assume STEM-related positions—according to a 2022 study by Data Prot, women make up less than 25% of the industry. Regardless, Nirghin is determined to forge her own path and bring legions of women along with her. Intrigued by the seemingly limitless world of opportunities that tech affords, she recently founded a company called Stealth. She says that her company was inspired by the original ethos that founded Google, specifically how it allows private individuals the ability to access more knowledge and resources. Stealth, as Nirghin explains, helps tech companies acquire funding and resources before they’re ready to go public. And in an exclusive, she shared a teaser about what she and her co-founder are working on. “We’re building super exciting technology to improve access to assets around the world,” she says.“So think of financial assets using artificial intelligence.”

And right before we concluded our conversation, Nirghin had some parting words of wisdom for future female innovators. As someone who’s battled several obstacles to get where she is today, she encouraged them to keep at their path and forge their own spaces: “Scientific innovation is not a linear path. It’s a winding route where you never know when you’re going to be done,” she says. “I think young people should remember that there are many ways to attack a problem. None of those ways are perfect, or we wouldn’t have this problem anymore.”

And with that message, Nirghin proves that when you allow women to participate and engage in science, the outcomes are powerful. Not only is she contributing significantly to the scientific community, but she is also inspiring a generation of girls who come after her. With each panel she speaks at or every social media she posts, she tells young women across the globe that they, too, can implement meaningful change. And if we’ve learned anything from Nirghin’s story, it’s that women are the future—and with more women like her, it’ll be a bright one.

Photo by Zane Gan.

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