Heroes

One teen found a genius way to make airplane air up to 55 times cleaner.

3 billion people fly on a plane each year. That's a lot of germs.

One teen found a genius way to make airplane air up to 55 times cleaner.
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Gates Foundation

Been sneezed on recently? Of course you have.

Whether you realize it or not, those suckers can travel. All of those coughs, sneezes, and sniffles that are constantly happening around you (or that you're doing yourself!) don't care much for boundaries. Your immune system is always fair game.



Even birds sneeze. And ruin perfectly good popcorn. GIF via "Angry Birds Movie" trailer.

When Raymond Wang was 15 years old, he got to thinking about how those kinds of germs travel.

The teen from Vancouver didn't have much of a choice; in late 2014, the news was covered in germs.

"I remember sitting on the couch and listening to the news and people constantly talking about two things: airplanes and the Ebola outbreak," Raymond recalled over the phone.

We can all relate to that. The 24-hour news cycle was obsessed with Ebola: the graphic scenes, the lives lost, the explanations of just how contagious it was, and basically anything else that scared the living bejeezus out of people.

The fear of air travel is what really struck a chord with Raymond.

"After hearing Ebola news time and time again, I thought maybe I should try to do something to look into the problem. Searching online, it turns out you come across various statistics of people getting sick on airplanes."

Disease transmission on planes can have a big effect. Like with H1N1...

All images via TED/YouTube, unless noted.

...and SARS.

Oftentimes, people might not even know they are sick when they are contaminating others!

That's a serious problem – especially when it comes to keeping disease and sickness contained.

Not being your average teenager, Raymond got to work on how to find a solution to reduce the spread of germs on planes.

And he succeeded.

"I didn't have money to go out and buy a plane, so I decided to build a computer instead," he said in his TED Youth talk. (I told you he's not your average teenager.)

He created simulations of how air currently flows and mixes around in an airplane. This is what he discovered happens when someone sneezes:


In. Your. Face.

Yes, you can take a minute to reflect on how gross and in-your-face that is. And then you can see how much better a teenager can make it.

He invented a small, fin-shaped device that can reduce pathogen inhalation by up to 55 times and improve fresh air delivery by 190%.

It could change the way we breathe on planes forever by changing airflow for the entire cabin.

It's what he calls a "patent-pending global inlet director," and it's a super-simple concept when you see how it works.

The device can be installed into existing spots in the overhead area of an airplane cabin, so it's easy. And it's cheap too. It works by creating personalized breathing zones from above by pushing air down instead of out, like the current system does.

So whereas a sneeze before would have spread out from head level, a sneeze with the director in place would be pushed down and filtered out before it could reach seat neighbors.

"A lot of the focus on planes is geared toward optimizing the exterior of airplanes," he says. "I wanted to optimize the cabin experience for passengers and flight crew. For people who are working on flights every day, this is a health and safety issue for them."

Raymond hopes to get the device on the market soon and has been busy pitching it at science and aviation conferences. He's seen a lot of positive feedback on it. And honestly, what's not to like?

Photo via Raymond Wang, used with permission.

As we've seen, disease outbreaks can come on very quickly and unexpectedly. Every little bit helps in the fight against them, and it's inspiring to see simple solutions that can make a big impact on our health and safety.

It just happens to be even cooler when the solutions come from people who haven't even graduated high school yet. Nice work, Raymond!

You can see more on his efforts in this great TED Talk:

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Photo courtesy of John Scully

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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