Ananya Chadha: The Teenager Editing Human Genes with Blockchain

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What were you doing at age 15? For the girls, most were probably pondering on how to interpret the smile that handsome guy they’ve been eyeing bestowed on them earlier in the day, or planning how to outshine everyone at this year’s prom. For the boys, their thoughts were probably on winning the latest trophy on PS4 or perfecting a prank for a sibling. Fifteen-year-old Ananya Chadha will graciously be sharing with us her story of how she went from solving Kumon math and flying solo planes, to controlling little robots with her brain and stumbling upon blockchain. These days, she is now spending most of her waking hours editing human genes on the blockchain.

So, how exactly did a young girl find her way into such a technical and complicated space? “It all began when I joined The Knowledge Society (TKS). TKS is a human accelerator, focused on building smart people to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. About two years ago, in one of the sessions, we heard about blockchain technology and Bitcoin. I originally brushed it off. Six months later, we talked about it again and, this time around, I realized it was really interesting and had developed enough that I could start building and learning independently. This was about September of 2017.” A perfect validation of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that where you come from and what you do with opportunities you come across directly impact your success. In this case, Ananya comes from TKS where, as a member, she had the opportunity to hear about blockchain. She didn’t just sit on all that knowledge, she took action, building applications for use cases she was already involved in.

Einstein is popularly credited with the saying: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Little Ananya was an exception to her friends, gaining little attention for being: “pretty, funny, wealthy etc. — properties that I did not possess, and as a result just floated along.” In fact, she says when she was in kindergarten, she “was pretty average.” While she is pretty, she was (and is) never average. Where did the streak of genius come from? “In Grade One, I began the Kumon math program. I started with a meagre counting dots, but by Grade Two I was able to do long division and addition of fractions, while my peers were still working on simple addition. My teacher took notice and gave me additional work and challenges, to keep me busy. It was the first time I got that recognition, similar to what others had received. For me, it was because of being smart and learning.”

Thus began the virtuous cycle of learning, getting smarter, learning some more and getting even smarter. “Time continued, and I harvested many dopamine snacks when it came to learning. This makes sense evolutionarily, as those who liked recognition probably worked hard to be leaders of their tribes, or worked hard to be exceptional at something, thus surviving and propagating their genes. So my brain experienced many positive feedback loops from being smart. Over time, I continued down this path of loving to learn.”

Excelling in the Kumon math program in Grade One is just one of Ananya’s experiences that have shaped her success today. For six years, she attended the Ontario Science Centre camps. “I attended them from age 6 to 12 and was the only camper who attended all the years. By the end, the instructors all knew my name and I felt at home. I loved learning new knowledge, and it also gave me so much belonging and community *insert more dopamine snacks*. This also makes sense evolutionarily, as folks who lived in tribes or groups probably survived better, propagating genes of liking being in a community.”

You meet some people, and it makes you wonder, what the heck have you been doing with your life? By the time Ananya was 14, her six years at the Ontario Science Centre camps paid off with her summoning the courage to get herself a solo pilot permit. At that age, I couldn’t even drive a car, much less fly a plane! “One of the lessons that was frequently repeated at the Ontario Science Centre camps was concerning aviation and aeronautics. I realized that just by attending the camps, I understood the basics: lift, drag, thrust, angle of attack. I then found out that, in Canada, you are able to get your solo pilot’s permit at age 14. I was 14 at the time. The same day I found out, I convinced my parents and we signed up for ground school at the local airport. And now I am able to fly planes solo!”

It was a defining experience for Ananya, “an only child, to awesome parents (Vasudha and Sanjay) — love you Mom and Dad! They’re amazing. They’ve always told me I can do anything, and are quite adaptable when I explain what I’m up to, and how I might miss some school, or want to do something.” Getting the solo pilot permit meant a whole lot to her. “That was the first time I realized that I can do anything. I just need to be willing to put in the work and the knowledge to make it happen. So overall, the acquired taste of loving to learn, and the realization that I can do anything were, I think, the things that shaped me into who I am today.”

Paraphrasing the words of one of the Ethereum co-founders, Ananya sees blockchain as “a really interesting piece of technology that allows a group of people (nodes) to be able to agree on something, without one of them being the leader. This is a complex thing to accomplish and requires deep math, game theory, and cryptography. Now, with this phenomenon of independent nodes being able to agree, we can accomplish really interesting tasks. Let’s take cryptocurrency as an example. For Bitcoin, this group of people or nodes all agree that Alice has ten Bitcoins, Bob has five Bitcoins, and Charlie has three. But if Alice gives two BTC to Bob, all the independent nodes now agree that Alice has 8 Bitcoins and Bob now has seven. All the independent people, without having to know or trust each other, agree that this must be true.

“This makes it really simple to see how cryptocurrencies are built on top of fundamental blockchain technology. Now, some more smart people created a crazy new tool called Ethereum. Ethereum is a new blockchain with really fascinating features. This time, you can add your own instructions and code in order to use the blockchain for other applications, more than just cryptocurrencies! You can upload your code called smart contracts, and now have the ability to utilize unique blockchain properties for a variety of different tasks and applications.”

The bulk of her activities in the space is to “use blockchain tech that already exists, find use cases, and build out applications.” One of her blockchain-based applications, G-nome, won her first place in the developer track at this year’s CryptoChicks Hackathon. Since the Hackathon, Ananya has gone on to speak at large international gatherings talking about her work in the decentralized space. Of special recognition for her is EDCON 2018, which, for her, helped emphasized the fact that after all is hashed and mined, the most important link in the chain is not actually the blocks, but the humans. “An awesome event occurred at EDCON 2018. The Ethereum Developer Conference. There was a point on the first day when the smartest folks I’ve ever met – pioneers of the blockchain space – stood up on stage and did the badger dance. It was amazing. I think it really showed how they’re able to still have fun, fool around, stay youthful, while still completely transforming the world in which we live.”

Having parents ready to support an “unconventional” child who is still in her teens is rare. You are probably thinking they must be into blockchain too, like Vitalik’s parents. Interestingly, this is not the case. Ananya’s parents are both CPAs who started an accounting firm together. “They always try their best to understand, as they recognize the world is changing drastically. I feel really grateful. Whenever I ask them what are their goals for me, they say they just want me to be happy.”

Being happy and content is Ananya’s ultimate goal in life. “I’m probably going to live for 90 years out of the trillions of years the universe has existed, and the trillions of years the universe will continue to exist. My life is pretty insignificant. The only thing I should be trying to do is be happy and content. Take the extremely short amount of time I have and optimize it for happiness and learning.” She therefore requires that folks she works with and projects she takes “need to overall make me feel warm and happy or teach me and allow me to grow. If neither of those criteria are satisfied, I’m out.”

Through her work and the people she interacts with, she hopes “to impact billions of people across the world for the better.” More specifically, “I feel like a positive path would be potentially raising a million dollars by the time I’m 18 years old, and/or working on solving some tough problems.”

Ananya’s projects are on use cases she had been involved in before joining blockchain. “Before blockchain, I really enjoyed genetics. I spent a lot of time at the Cohn Lab at SickKids hospital, working and learning from the amazing people there. They use CRISPRcas to edit the human genome to cure diseases and have had amazing results. I did a summer project working with Eleonora, looking at CRISPRcas and its possibilities with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease. Zhenya, Ele and everyone there really did change my life for the better, propelling me into science and discovery and I am forever grateful :)”

Editing human genes with blockchain is just one of the things she’s busy with. “I’m really fascinated by Brain Computer Interfaces, tech that lets you connect your mind to machines or computers, solving some really tough problems.” In April, she shared on Twitter about her progress developing computer interfaces. She was able to “control a remote control car with my brain! I used focus to go and stop, and since jaw clenching generates a lot of noise on the EEGs, I used it to turn the bot.” Just incredible!

In as much as she is fascinated with technology and what it can be used to achieve, she is wary about some malefactors using it for evil. “Lots of really fascinating work in the field has been done, but the implications of the future continue to frighten me. I realize that it’s really difficult getting technology to stop developing, so my goal is to be big enough in the space, to hopefully reach a point at which I can make sure the technology is used for the better, almost steering the world away from disaster. That’s one of my missions for now.”

“Before, actually, I set my goal as ‘I want my life to have mattered.’ I want to have a legacy and an impact. However, I thought about it and something interesting I’ve noticed is that, over time, no one really has a legacy. We know many people who lived in the past century but as we go further back in time, fewer and fewer people are known. We now call them the ‘Aztecs’ or the ‘Vikings,’ with notable figures in these groups fading away over the course of time. After loads of intra-personal reflection, I realize now that I want to be able to change something but just personally from a selfish frame of reference. I want the dopamine snacks of thinking ‘I live on’, and that I have the intellectual and social horsepower to be able to enact change and shape the world for the better. But it’s just to make me happy and fulfilled thinking I have a good impact, because at least for now I seem to believe that truly having an impact that will withstand the test of time for millions of years, is extremely difficult – something no one has yet accomplished.”

Have you been inspired by this smart young lady and also looking to launch a career in blockchain? Ananya has a word of advice for you: “Just do something. There are many resources out now. Online courses, conferences, people nearby who are in the space. Learn! Build! Reach out! The only thing you’re limited by is your imagination :)”

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About Author

Faith Obafemi is a digital content consultant whose work revolves around FinTech, cryptocurrency, blockchain and smart contracts. For the past two years, Faith has been providing educative and engaging content for projects in the space. She helps to filter the hype and highlight the potentials of the novel technology. When she's not hashing content for her clients, you can find her learning Solidity and HyperLedger Fabric, or watching Korean series!

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