Most people abide by the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But what about tinkering with something to improve it and potentially help millions in the end?
That was exactly what one Stockdale High School junior, who is intent on helping those around him, thought.
Ishaan Brar was always surrounded by STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) growing up. "Both of my parents are doctors," he explained.
It seemed like a no-brainer he would be interested in science fairs and pursuing the field as a career.
What he did not expect, however, was that his science project — inventing an improved version of a urinary catheter — at this year's Fresno County Science Fair would qualify for an international science fair and later earn him a fourth-place finish.
"The minute they said Bakersfield, I just stood up," he said, recalling his win. "It was really exciting and a great experience. It’s definitely something you want to go back for."
With both his parents in the medical field — his father, Harjeet, is a nephrologist, and his mother, Sumeet Bhinder, is a rheumatologist — and his interest in biomedical engineering, Brar knew he wanted to tackle a problem present in medicine for a project.
What it would be was unknown until he job shadowed his father at a nephrology clinic, which specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of kidney disorders. He noticed many patients have problems with urinary tract infections from using urinary catheters.
"What's interesting is a lot of money goes towards antibiotics," he explained. "You would think more money would go toward dialysis machines, but so much funding is because of UTI infections."
When a catheter is inserted in the body, bacteria and superbugs have a way to travel up the body, Brar explained, thus leading to infections. It is estimated at least 13,000 deaths occur in the U.S. each year due to urinary tract infections, according to the Journal of Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nursing.
"Rather than pumping people full of antibiotics, we should fix the catheter," he said.
Brar looked at different ways he could improve catheters currently used — what chemicals to use to kill bacteria, implementing additional tubes and valves, how to pump antibiotics in and out of the catheter and ways to mold it.
In the end, his catheter follows a detailed process: balloons pump antibiotics into a tube, they enter a mixing chamber where they combine with a patient's urine and then flow out of the body, all without having the antibiotics enter a patient's body. This process also allows for the tube to be cleaned as urine leaves the body.
He decided to take his project to the Fresno County Science Fair in March, mainly because the Kern County Science Fair is not an Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF)-affiliated fair. ISEF is the the world’s largest pre-college science competition.
In Fresno, he won first-place in the Medicine and Health category, was a runner-up in the Sweepstakes category and received additional awards and scholarships. His wins qualified him for the California Science and Engineering Fair and Intel ISEF.
He took home a fourth-place award from the California Science and Engineering Fair in April, where he had to compete in the Mammalian Biology category because there were no Biomedical Engineering or Medicine and Health categories available. Because of that, he said it was "hard to compare projects" with others, but he still felt it was a great experience.
Then came time for Intel ISEF, held May 12-17 in Phoenix. About 1,400 regional and state winners from the United States and national winners from other countries participated in the competition. Four other individuals from the Fresno County Science Fair joined Brar in Arizona.
On competition day, Brar said he had judges coming up to him all day long asking him questions such as how did he set up his project, how he created it and why did he use silicon instead of latex for his catheter.
When it came time to announce the winners, Brar was nervous. But once he heard his name announced as a fourth-place finisher for the Biomedical Engineering category, it all went away.
"They make you feel like superstars," he said. "You have sports competitions and all the stuff, but at ISEF you doing science makes you a superstar."
Other than a prize, the feedback he heard from professionals was invaluable.
"The biggest comment that impressed me that everyone said was 'And nobody ever thought of it for 90 years?'" Bhinder said. "It came out in 1929 and it’s barely been modified. It was a rather simple solution but it has created such a huge problem."
"It’s a good thing for a kid his age to see a problem and try to find a solution. That was my reward of all of this," she added.
Brar wants to improve his catheter even more by using a different material and making it thinner. He hopes to receive Food and Drug Administration approval for medical use one day as well.
He is also hoping the Kern County Science Fair can become Intel ISEF-affiliated so more local students can make it to the international stage. He will present to the Kern County Science Foundation why the affiliation is crucial in September.
With his junior year approaching, Brar will start applying for colleges. After his success at science fairs, he might want to venture out into different fields such as art and history, right?
"I want to be a doctor," he said, laughing. "I got this idea just looking at problems, so I want to start looking at other problems to solve.
"Sometimes we ask what’s the purpose and what really matters. With biomedical and medicine in general, you see the impact of how to improve people’s lives, and I really like that."