(TNS) — After Maya Varma's friend suffered a sudden asthma attack at summer camp three years ago, the Bay Area senior began asking questions that led to her creation of a low-cost tool to measure lung ventilation, a device earning her one of three top prizes and $150,000 in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search, considered the nation's Junior Nobel Prizes.
Maya's win makes it the seventh straight year that a Bay Area student has placed among the winners and the second year that a local student has won the top prize.
Last year, a San Jose student took first place in the "global good" category and a San Ramon student won second place in innovation. A Danville student won first place overall in 2011, before the contest split into three categories.
Maya, 17, a senior at San Jose's Presentation High School, built a smartphone-based apparatus to diagnose five diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which affects 64 million people worldwide. For the project — developed at home under the mentorship of a Johns Hopkins professor — she won the top Intel medal for innovation.
"I was so happy. I didn't expect it at all," said Maya, who along with the other two first-place winners and 40 finalists was feted for a week in Washington, D.C. by the Society for Science & the Public, which runs the contest for sponsor Intel. This could be the last year for sponsorship by Intel, which has said it will drop its support for the competition in 2017.
The finalists announced Tuesday were selected from among 300 semifinalists — 32 of them from the Bay Area, with multiple students from Monta Vista in Cupertino; Bellarmine, the Harker School and Lynbrook in San Jose; Amador Valley in Pleasanton, Gunn in Palo Alto and Saratoga High.
After a week in the nation's capital, Maya said, "I loved getting to meet all the finalists and listening to their research. I loved touring D.C., going to the National Institutes of Health and meeting its director. It's been a great week."
She is the first Presentation student to become an Intel finalist — the school had a semifinalist in 2006 and one in 2007. The school excitedly posted the news Wednesday.
"We are thrilled for Maya. She is a dedicated, driven student who is as kind as she is intelligent," said spokeswoman Caitlin Matalone. "We are particularly proud of her commitment to helping others through science."
Maya began working on engineering projects in the sixth grade. She has such a stellar reputation, her AP Physics teacher, Diane Rosenthal, said, that just realizing she's a student in your class is intimidating. She's so sharp that if she misses something on a test or homework, Rosenthal said, "I then wonder, did I do something wrong?"
For her Intel project, Maya developed a spirometer, which analyzes pulmonary function. Unlike existing spirometers which cost in the thousands of dollars, she assembled hers with $35 worth of hobbyist electronics and free computer-aided design tools. She engineered a wireless transmitter, using a Bluetooth technology to connect to a micro-controller, and also developed an app for the device.
For Maya, the cost was key. When she researched spirometers, she found that their expense is the barrier to treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the fourth-leading cause of death in the world. Early detection is vital.
"Ninety percent of the deaths are in the developing world, because they don't have the resources for diagnostic equipment," she said. While existing spirometers provide data for doctors to interpret, Maya's device provides diagnostic information directly to patients.
She started on her project in 2014, after she won a $600 research grant. While working on her device, she communicated via email with her mentor, Dr. Muhammad Ali Yousuf at Johns Hopkins University.
Besides building engineering projects, Maya captains Presentation's robotics team, enjoys art and loves to draw.
She flew home from D.C. on Wednesday, but won't get back to school until Friday. That's because on Thursday, she'll be at the Synopsys Technology and Engineering Fair at the San Jose Convention Center, showing another project, an automated wheelchair that helps with navigation.
Maya, who hasn't decided where she'll attend college yet, hopes to study biomedical engineering and develop medical devices. She's the daughter of two engineers, Anujan and Sobha Varma of Cupertino.
The winners were announced Tuesday night at a black-tie gala at the National Building Museum.
Of her exhilarating week meeting with top scientists and peers, she said, "It's been really fun and I've loved every moment."
Staff writer Mark Gomez contributed to this report.
©2016 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.