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Student Feature: Kriti Lall

Kriti Lall: The Power of Curiosity

Now a freshman at Harvard College studying Chemical and Physical Biology, Kriti Lall

lights up the classroom with her warm California smile. “Harvard is an incredible place,”

she says, “I’m really excited to explore more and expand my intellectual capabilities

over the next four years.”

Lall graduated from Castilleja High School in Palo Alto, California in the spring and

headed to Harvard with dreams of doing scientific research, but her scientific career

started in her early childhood. “I’ve always been interested in science, and always

curious about things around me. When I was little, I always wanted crystal growing kits

and telescopes for my birthday.”

She claims that this passion became almost an obsession by the time she reached

middle school “I started doing research with algae; reading scientific journals, and

conducting experiments in my garage, figuring out how pipettes worked, and learning –

as best as I could as a 12 year old – about the magical world of scientific research.”

Eventually Kriti found a passion trying to resolve a problem that hit close to home. ‘I

went to India over the summer before starting my freshman year at high school, and I

volunteered for a couple of weeks at a village school. Every day I walked through the

village, and I would see people with scars on their faces and hands. They weren’t

normal scars: some of them were green and brown. I was anguished to learn later that

these people were suffering from arsenic poisoning.”

She became intrigued to learn why arsenic was polluting the water and why was it such

an issue to remove it. Arsenic is a poison that is expensive and time-consuming to

remove. Consequently, more than 137 million people in 70 countries are affected by

arsenic poisoning. “It affects more than half the population of Bangladesh alone.” Said

Lall in shock, “The World Health Organization estimates that in the next decade alone, 1

in 10 adults in Bangladesh alone will die from arsenic poisoning.”

She looked at the currently available methods for arsenic removal and brainstormed to

find a way to make it not only effective, but also accessible to such a low-income

community. Finally, she found an answer in bio-remediation; that is, using microbes to

clean the contaminated water.

“I researched a class of bacteria called extremophiles that could potentially remove

arsenic but they are high maintenance because they are extreme bacteria – they

require a specific temperature, pH, etc. in order to survive. So keeping them alive alone

drives the cost of the entire arsenic removal process up.”

Since she couldn’t find an organism that could remove arsenic inexpensively, she

decided to make her own. Lall had her answer: “Could I somehow make, or genetically

engineer, a new bacteria that used the same approach, but was easy to grow and

maintain, and that could help remove arsenic from water inexpensively? I spent the next

few years working on answering exactly that.”