Show / Hide Navigation
Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon

Articles

Manasa Pagadala
The Teenage Genius Who Shaved Her Head

Manasa Pagadala is witty, hardworking and smart. Her biggest passion in life is learning about new advances in the field of science. It turns out she is also a fan of supermodel, Tyra Banks. She arrived at the photo studio in a fresh face of makeup by artist, Tianna Manley. Once into the all black athleisure wear provided by Gentry Boutique, she was smiling brightly. She said, "I feel like I'm starring in an episode of 'America's Next Top Model.'" If anything, she was starring in Beyoncé's, "Who Runs the World?"

Every individual has unique gifts and talents, but very few people use their natural abilities to the fullest potential. Manasa is one of those few people. She is eager to share her gifts with the world. Her story brings to life the inspiring words from her all-time favorite book, Harry potter. "It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities."

She is a recent graduate of Rivermont Collegiate, a private college prep school set on a charming hillside in Bettendorf, Iowa. Born into a family whose ethics include hard work and academic excellence, Manasa was groomed for success. Her late grandfather taught her the importance of integrity and discipline. He said, "If you want 100%, aim for 120%." She describes her mother as the hardest working person she has ever known. Her sister is in medical school and Manasa said she has set the bar high with her accomplishments. Her father is a doctor and she credits him for teaching her the value of education. She began participating in science fairs in sixth grade and every year of middle school she eagerly created a new project. By the time she was a freshman in high school she focused on a project that could actually change the world, particularly in developing countries such as India.

Photo representing Teenage Genius articleShe usually travels to India every other summer. She loves being surrounded by people who love Indian music and movies and speak her mother tongue. Additionally, when she has time, she enjoys teaching at a school for disadvantaged children in Vijayawada, India. She said, "Speaking to children who have lost so much, but have so much love has changed my outlook on my life."

In southern India, there is a temple called Tirupati that every South Indian visits at some point in their lives. A common practice there is giving away one's hair to show dedication towards God. She made a "promise" to God that if she got into college, she would shave her head as a sign of gratitude. She donated her long, thick locks to charity.

Manasa's inspiration for her self-proclaimed, "dream project," were her cultural ties to India titled "Switching to Switchgrass," Manasa described her three main goals: "raising awareness for biofuel, targeting a third-world country, and sending necessary resources to organizations that could potentially take action.

Next, Manasa created kits containing the ingredients to produce a small sample of ethanol that the kit recipient could burn. The ingredients, for the scientifically inclined were, "a biomass source (in this case switchgrass), a pretreatment enzyme, a hydrolyzing enzyme called cellulase, and distillers' yeast." For the less scientifically inclined, Manasa included a detailed brochure and pamphlet explaining how the ethanol production works and why awareness is important. According to Manasa, ethanol production is important because, "We all take our energy for granted. We use it all the time without even thinking about how the constant use of fossil fuels for energy is releasing tons and tons of carbon emissions, which is furthering climate change, one of the biggest issues our world is facing."

Her ultimate goal was to show people that producing ethanol from a biomass source was easy and better for our planet. She assembled a sample demonstration kit, and worked very hard to get the kit in the hands of change-makers or people who could directly help the issue of biofuel production. Manasa's project allowed her to attend science symposiums offered by Intel, International BioGENEius and others.

Her accomplishments are truly inspiring, especially when science is a field not often pursued by young women as compared to men.

Appreciating that her education has empowered her, she believes that the most pressing issue facing young women today is affordable education.

She explained that, "Getting a higher education is still a struggle for the most vulnerable and at-risk women including single mothers, women in poverty, and abuse survivors. Statistics show that only 7% of single moms under 30 have finished college and many cannot afford a degree because childcare and housing expenses take up most of their income."

Because Manasa is well-educated, empowered, has a strong supportive family and lives in a community she calls accepting, we wondered if she felt she had been impacted by discrimination. She said she remembered getting this question when she applied for college. She asked someone for advice on how to answer, they said, "Just make something up to show your struggle. People love to hear about struggles." But, that didn't sit well with her.

She said, "To be honest, growing up in a suburban neighborhood in Iowa meant that I didn't experience a lot of discrimination."

She said no one was ever outright sexist or racist towards her, although occasionally there were snide comments about being a "cow-worshipper," or how the Indian food her mother packed in her lunches was "disgusting looking," or being told she could not do something, just because she was a girl. Usually, she brushed those things off because she felt lucky to have these limited experiences.

However, she said, "My parents had to start a life in a place where people didn't want Indians 'taking their jobs' and building lives here. When my mother enquired as to what medical specialty to pursue, they told her to work with children or babies because that was 'suitable' for a woman." She said her parents struggled through discrimination to build a better life for her and her sister.

Manasa also acknowledged incidents outside of her family as well. She said, "There are incidents where people of color are shot senselessly. Earlier this year, 2 Indian men were shot in a bar in Kansas. Every day, we hear about unarmed Black Americans being shot without reason. It's truly disappointing that terrible things like this are still happening today. In countries of the Middle East, women are oppressed and restricted from educating themselves. If anything, not experiencing any major discrimination has taught me that I should advocate for the others who are not as privileged as I am."

No doubt Manasa's education and natural ability will take her far, but her choices will likely take her farther. Although she is a focused thinker and passionate about the causes she believes in, she is still a teen just starting her freshman year of college at Northwestern Illinois University. Following her completion of the honors program in medical education she will attend the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. Her plans are to become a physician, and one day, become a part of the "Doctors without Borders" program and improve the healthcare system in other countries. She also enjoys a life outside of science, immersing herself in books, movies and Netflix when she gets the chance. She has watched countless episodes of" America's Next Top Model" and "The Office." She has read every Harry Potter book and seen every movie multiple times. Manasa proves that there is time to work hard, care for others, enjoy life and make the world a better place, no matter how young you are.