Q&A: Freshman Diva Sharma on innovation in health care

May 15, 2018, 12:01 a.m.

In high school, Diva Sharma ’21 developed a device to detect stress in both humans and animals with the help of the Indian Institute of Technology. Sharma was recently named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in Asia, following nominations in both the “Health and Sciences” and “Youngest” categories.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you first get started developing this device?

Diva Sharma (DS): When I was in high school in the 10th grade, I conceptualized a device that can quantify the state of stress in animals and then later hoped to expand that to human beings. I witnessed … a developing nation where I thought that health care was a major issue that definitely plagued the lives of animals but also obviously human beings. I started with animals as my target species to quantify stress, and I worked at the Indian Institute of Technology, but my research was my own to establish a device that could do so. I entered a lot of science fairs after that, such as the President of India’s Innovation Fair — which was organized in conjunction with the Department of Science and Technology of India — the Intel Fair, et cetera. Once I got recognition at fairs, I filed a patent for my work. After that I’ve been speaking about my device through several platforms. I’ve been talking to people in academia here at Stanford about my work, [and they] have given me advice. That’s pretty much how I started off. I started to assemble the device and learn more about the mechanics of hardware and software.

TSD: Can you talk about some of the platforms you used to promote your message?

DS: I started off by giving a talk at a TEDx event in India called TEDxDelhi, titled “Girls need to lean in too!”, which was directed toward young women in India, especially girls because the human rights that girls have in countries that are developing are very different from girls that you observe in the Bay Area. I really wanted to pass on a message where women were empowered to pursue research opportunities. I used slogans like “grab the mic,” which highlighted the willingness of women and young girls to take on the pedestal of speaking up, and my talk was selected by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was featured in the TEDx Girl Empowerment Playlist and received over 77,000 views, I believe. It was featured by CNN IBN because [my] talk was held in conjunction with them. It was inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” concept, but more directed towards people in schools. Then I was invited to the Nexus Global Summit India event. Nexus Global Summit is an entrepreneurial and social impact organization that organizes a summit in the United Nations every year. I spoke at the Delhi conference and later was invited by the World Bank to the Global Youth and Development Forum.

Later, I was also invited to speak at the European Union Horizon 2020 annual research and innovation conference, organized in Brussels, Belgium, where again I was the youngest speaker. I spoke about my work, and about how the European Union (E.U.) can optimize their budget to invest and strengthen their regulations that the E.U. has for young people, in the research and innovation unit, based on my experience as someone who is trying to conduct research on my own.

TSD: What inspired you to create this device and to start advocating for female empowerment?

DS: I noticed very long waiting lines in countries like India, [where people are] lined up outside hospitals and not everything is based on the priority for medical treatment. I also see that in veterinary centers, and I am someone who is very animal friendly; I absolutely love pets. I just thought of this unmet need in the market: “What if you had a device that could tell who needs a priority medical treatment in that point and time, so you can prioritize treatment for those people?” But I also saw other [instances] where such a device can be used, such as in instances of poaching, where you could use such a device to track, working with GPS, to let you know of an instance where an animal is under anxiety and stress.

Even for human beings, one thing I’ve been working on here at Stanford is using the device to measure social intervention in people, especially young children, if they have permission to be tested on. Basically, measuring social intervention for human beings. Obviously people collect data on themselves with Apple watches; they’re ubiquitous on campus, but if you had a device to measure stress, you could use that data to optimize and make your life decisions better.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about; that’s the core of what I’ve worked on. It’s interesting when you’re in a developing country and when you see problems, and when you go abroad and see other developed countries. You see that those principles can be applied to your own country, and that encourages you to innovate because you really want to reach out to more people in a country where there aren’t as many resources … India’s economy is developing at a crazy rate right now. It’s amazing and I really want to be part of that revolution.

TSD: How do you manage advocating for women’s rights and continuing to develop your product on top of studying at Stanford?

DS: I’ll be honest, coming here I definitely had challenges as an international student, trying to get accustomed to a country that I’m not from and getting used to a system that’s very different. For now I have pretty much just been talking to people in academia about how I can take this forward. At the same time, I’m definitely exploring new technologies now that I’m here as a student, as a potential computer science and economics major. I think that’s definitely going to shape the way I think of future projects in the long run, and given the resources on campus, being a student is really helping me to be able to leverage my impact.

TSD: What are some of the challenges you had coming from India?

DS: Because I’ve been to the U.S. before, it wasn’t a cultural shock, but at the same time the academic system is very different from what I was used to in India. It’s very analytical here and I need to get used to that, plus, in general, just the life here. Being on your own, being independent versus being back at home, I think that’s a challenge. These challenges mostly everyone else faces too. But India is a developing country, the resources available there are very different [than] the resources available here … It’s really hard to manage your time and recognize where it’s worth putting in your effort, and there’s so much information out here. In India, you have to work really hard to get information … Here, there’s a lot of information, but you need to be able to filter through it and I feel like that’s something that is definitely a challenge because there’s so much happening all the time. You have to keep hold of your vision and really stick with it.

TSD: What can you take from Stanford back to India to really be part of that revolution?

DS: Beyond the scope of midterms and p-sets, I’m really taking away a lot from my classes. For example, whether it’s an ECON class or a computer science class, the ability to structure something out of scratch using programming can potentially help you really structure ideas that you can implement in your own country. Even in economics … you know [when] it’s the right time to launch what, and how to price things, how to make things available to people on a subsidy in a developing country, how to utilize resources and be able to resource your own ideas. At the same time, [considering] the culture at Stanford in the Bay Area, it’s amazing because I’ve attended a lot of talks and events with venture capital firms. I’m in Stanford Women in Business and BASES, and I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists through these clubs. I’ve seen people pitch their ideas and how you can really get that money. You feel really empowered to be able to pursue your own idea. At Stanford you know you can get the resources.

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.


Contact Michel Espinosa at mesp2021 ‘at’ stanford.edu


Michael Espinosa '22 is majoring in international relations. He's the head of The Daily's social media team, and editor for the University beat and also occasionally writes for sports, arts, and The Grind. He's the biggest Taylor Swift fan at Stanford and the proudest New Yorker you will ever meet. Contact him at mespinosa 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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