Creating an Alternative Material to Plastics

Chandhana Sathishkumar
March 14, 2023

Hello. Who are you and what have you achieved?

Hi! I’m Chandhana Sathishkumar, a 17-year-old Innovator, Writer, and Artist from Chennai, India. I’ve spoken at TED, set a Guinness world record, and written a book about neuroscience. I’m interested in making an impact in biotech and am currently working on biochemistry research to create an alternative material to plastics.

What's your backstory and how did you get started?

I'm a high school student interested in arts and sciences, and my journey started in kindergarten. I loved reading comics (The Young Scientist and Amar Chitra Katha), and Phineas and Ferb was always my go-to television show. The show revolves around two young boys building insanely cool things in their backyard, ranging from rockets to roller coasters, creating nanobots, and locating Frankenstein's brain. Day after day, I watched Phineas and Ferb completing missions, constantly venturing into the unknown, and the best part was that they always managed to convince their friends to join their summer adventures. 

As a small kid with a big imagination, I was growing to love exploring things and trying to find answers that didn't exist (yet). I would pretend to explore the Amazon rainforest or make secret potions to cure all diseases. Like my TV heroes, I was curious to learn how things worked and wanted to find solutions to our problems. The show inspired me to continue asking questions and learning everyday things about the world around us -- why wasn't there blue food? Who made glitter? Who named colors? 

One day, I decided that enough was enough. I wouldn't watch more TV or play more make-believe games. 

I had to do something real.

So when I was seven, I dug a moat around all the trees in the yard that surrounded our house so water could slowly trickle down and plants would always get moisture. Little did I know I was replicating a scientific process called the cyclic submergence of water used to eliminate the problem of repeated irrigation. Not only did I horrify my parents by making a 'mess' of the yard, but I also managed to convince my cousins to join me in building these moats. I stood there towering at 3 feet, beaming with pride as I looked at the little world we had created. 

My love for exploring has only grown since then, whether it was directed to using brain-computer interfaces to create a real-life version of telekinesis, writing a book about conspiracy theories, or being a part of an earnest debate to determine if pineapple truly belongs on pizza. Every quest pushes the boundaries of my knowledge and capabilities by leading me into uncharted territory and shaping my identity as a scientist, conspiracy theory writer, and ice cream enthusiast who wants to change humanity for the better. At the same time, it inspires me to work towards understanding new technologies that can augment our natural abilities in new and exciting ways.

My most significant discovery was realizing that I don't need to wait for somebody else to show me the way; I can find it on my own, one step at a time. The TV show taught me the importance of curiosity, persistence, passion, and dreaming big, even if it seemed impossible at first -- thus helping me grow into the curious STEM student I am now.

Although this journey did start with a cartoon on Disney XD and make-believe adventures, they have driven me to see opportunities in everyday situations, just like Phineas and Ferb.

Take us through the process or steps you took to be where you are.

Going down YouTube rabbit holes and reading what interests me has helped me explore science. 

Talking to like-minded people has helped me grow my perspective. 

And writing what I've learned on a blog to clear out my thoughts and share them.

Have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous along the way?. Any advice for other young people who want to get started or are just starting out?

It's vital to assess what's important to you and why. Is it the grade? Is it to understand what you learn? Or, being a bit broader- Why do you do what you do? Do what makes sense in a way that makes sense to YOU.

When you think there's no way out, KNOW that your brain is lying to you. There's ALWAYS a way. It may not be apparent to you; it's hard and needs you to step out of your comfort zone and have a challenging conversation. Be it with your parents, teachers, friends, or yourself. What you want is right on the other side.

Going with the flow is a crappy piece of advice. When you don't agree with something-- question it; if you ever feel that you don't like where you are in life, remember no one but you can activate change.

Better oops than 'what if?'. More often than not, perceived risks are more than actual risks. There's nothing wrong with trying new things and figuring out they aren't for you. 

What's important to you isn't essential to others simply because they're not you. And you don't have to justify why you want what you want. All it takes is recognizing what you want + why + a tiny bit of crazy.

A lot of things look waaayy harder than they are. More often than not, they require a realistic amount of work—nothing you cannot do.

Don't settle.

You only know what others want you to know about them. They could be going through the most traumatic events of their life. You can't say. So don't be a douche. You have no idea what it's doing to them. Be a nice person.

If your dreams aren't big enough that they scare the sh*t out of you, you're not dreaming big enough(!!!)

What are you working on today and what does the future look like?

I’m working on bioplastic-related research and finishing high school right now. My next steps involve continuing with research in biotech at university to improve my bioplastic proposal.

What have been the most influential books, people, or other resources?

Book: The Almanack of Naval Ravikant

Program: The Knowledge Society

Youtube Channel: Kurzgesagt

Essays: Paul Graham

Is there anything you would like us to highlight in particular?

There's so much you can contribute to the world regardless of your field. Don't limit yourself.


Ready to take off?