Young Change Makers: Why and How Laalitya Acharya Is Helping To Change Our World

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
13 min readOct 18, 2022

--

Learn your strengths — not every organization (or person!) can do everything.

But to bounce off of the “one-person show” tip, I also think its important to find your niche. For example, the water crisis is a massive issue. You can solve it by raising awareness, raising funds, finding methods to remove contamination, developing ways to detect unclean water, and the list goes on. But if you try to tackle every single one of these issues, you will face burnout and an inability to achieve any of your goals. Instead, go narrow and deep. Delve into a few sectors that you are particularly fond of and then you can expand (if you would like) as you grow.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laalitya Acharya.

Laalitya is a student at Columbia University studying biomedical engineering and political science. She is passionate about integrating STEM and policy together in order to solve global problems — including the water crisis. In order to mitigate the devastating impact of the “water gap”, Laalitya founded The Nereid Project, an organization which aims to mitigate the water crisis through research, advocacy and policy efforts — for this work, she was named a Gloria Barron Young Hero, won the Gold Medal Congressional Award and has been named a Global Teen Leader.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a small suburb in Ohio and went to a public school for my entire high school career. As a first-generation Indian American, the importance of education was always emphasized to me — and as I naturally gravitated towards scientific experimentation, my parents supported me in these endeavors!

Once I entered high school, I found myself wanting to participate in scientific research and science fair. My high school did not have a traditional research program and so I decided to do “at-home” independent research instead! This was where the basis of my research, Nereid, began! I also worked to develop my school’s science fair curriculum growing it from just a handful of students my freshman year to over 40 state qualifiers my senior year of high school! This program continues to flourish and its absolutely one of my proudest accomplishments!

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

This isn’t exactly a “traditional” book but I think the motto is still significant. When I was about 14 years old, I learned about this book called “The Drinkable Book”. This book is basically filled with paper that acts as a water filter! One page from this book can filter approximately 100 liters of water — and could be a really viable alternative to the current filtration methods. I also think that the artistic message of having a book, usually filled with the knowledge of life, is now being used to quite literally give life to billions across the globe. (I also just loved learning about the science behind this technology too!)

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Making a difference to me is making impact and making change. While that might just sound like synonymous statement, when we work to improve the world — we work to create positive impact. These impacts can be small or big, btu both scales are equally crucial!

For me, one moment that really stands out is when I was first starting some of my STEM education programs with The Nereid Project. I had set off to develop a program that offers hands-on experiences to young scientists. This was one of the first programs that I had individually developed and led from start to finish. Our projects ranged from CD hoverboards to elephant-toothpaste and the occasional rocket launch! Truth be told, I was incredibly proud of what I had accomplished, I had put my heart and soul into creating this program.

But I always wondered how impactful it was, was it actually making a difference? Soon after, a student asked why a lemon worked as a battery. I explained that it was due to starches and electrolytes; she followed up by asking if a potato battery would work better due to potato starches! I was shocked, I’d never introduced the idea of potato batteries to the class, but somehow this student had used her deductive reasoning and scientific evidence to ask questions. My program had demystified science and brought understanding to her in a consumable form. However small, it had been able to change her view of STEM forever and that was truly a monumental impact!

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

My organization is called The Nereid Project, and we are working to end the global crisis through research, advocacy and policy. This 3-pronged approach allows us to approach this crisis through multiple angles in order to mitigate its devastating effects.

Firstly, the research. I’ve created the Nereid research which is essentially an all-in-one device that uses AI processing in order to detect microbial contamination in water. This approach is able to instantly identify contaminants and therefore can keep water sources clean and disease free.

Secondly, we create STEM and water education programs for students and adults. We have worked with hundreds of students from across the world in order to get them excited about all that science has to offer! We also host water summits which are community discussions on ways in which each of us can reduce the water crisis.

Lastly, we utilize policy in order to ensure that we can ensure access to clean water through a legislative arm. Cases like Flint, Michigan or Jackson, Mississippi demonstrate that even within the United States, potable water is not a given. It is our goal at The Nereid Project to ensure that it is!

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

The inspiration from Nereid came from a family trip to India. There I saw the glaring water gap, many people lacked access to clean water and despite the precautions, my family took — I still fell ill from drinking contaminated water. When I returned home, I found that this was a global issue that affected 2.1 billion people across the world. The current solutions also seemed to be ineffective at mitigating this crisis at the local level. So, I wondered if there was another way? With my previous skills in Artificial intelligence, I wondered if I could use these skills? Thus, the premise of Nereid was born!

With the Nereid Research, I also decided to create the Nereid Project because I felt like just doing the research wasn’t enough. We needed to get advocates out into the community to help build awareness and to end this crisis once and for all.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. We don’t always get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up, and do it? What was that final trigger?

I think the biggest trigger for me was realizing how close the deadline for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) is. When I first began working on Nereid in early 2019, we were just over 10 years away from 2030. Today we are at under 8 years, and it seems that some of our efforts will need to be increased exponentially in order to reach these goals.

My organization specifically tackles SGD 6 which works to ensure that all have access to clean water.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to do all of the technicalities and legal work at the beginning of the process. I believe this is absolutely not true!

Instead, first step is to begin to organize. Be the leader who gets people together to create change whether that is starting a fundraiser, volunteering at local soup kitchen, whatever is your passion!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When I first started my project, I also started to enter into the world of social media for my professional career. I began a TikTok account that shares my journey as a college student, scientist, and advocate. A lot of my content centers around The Nereid Project, and so, one thing that has started to happen to me more and more recently, is how often I’m just randomly recognized! One time I was walking to the library on campus and this stranger came up to me and shared how much they enjoyed my videos about doing self-based research — which actually inspired them to do science fair in the first place!

Seeing firsthand the impact that my work makes is just such a humbling experience. I started my organization with the hope of mitigating the water crisis, but now it has expanded beyond my wildest imaginations!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

The first time I was printing T-Shirts for The Nereid Project, I was doing it myself in a makerspace! I don’t know what exactly came over me, but I decided to see if I could create multiple T-Shirts at the same time, under one heat press (for those who don’t know, when making T-Shirts with printed designs, a really common technique is to use heat and transfer paper to print the design).

Spoiler Alert: You can’t.

While the top T-Shirt got burned by being on the press for too long, the bottom one got no heat at all and so I just had a bunch of not-very-pretty T-Shirts instead. I won’t ever hate on my curious spirit for wanting to see if it could work. But I think I learned that when using transfer paper (as well as sometimes in life), its best to go slow and steady instead!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My family has always been my biggest supporter through all of my endeavors. Whether it was helping me convert to a virtual mode during COVID-19 or cheering me up when my research didn’t work for the millionth time, they have always been there to encourage me.

Over the years, I’ve also been very lucky to develop a whole squad of people who support me. One example is my high school engineering teacher, Ms. Jones, she was one of my inspirations for entering engineering! She mentored me through my science fair projects, all the competitions, through the start of The Nereid Project and so much more. I truly wouldn’t be here without her support and dedication. Educators play such a crucial role for children and I’m forever grateful to her!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Here are three things that I believe need to be done in order to address the water crisis:

  • Talk: Many people don’t know or don’t realize how devastating this crisis is. When 1 out of 3 people lack access to clean water, it shows an intrinsic issue that we must address. But we can’t solve a problem without knowing that it exists. So one manor goal of The Nereid Project (and something I believe we should all do) is speak about water.
  • Do: After that first step for raising awareness, the second phase is doing something about it. With water being so intrinsic in our lives, there are so many ways that we can address this crisis. It can be as simple as conserving water in your own home (like when you brush your teeth or shower), you can work with local business the get them to reduce their water consumption, organize fundraisers to get clean water to places that need it, volunteer your time to water organizations, and so much more. Regardless of who you are or how much time you have, each of us can make an impact on the water crisis.
  • Legislate: This one is specifically for the politicians, and it is also what we at The Nereid Project are also working towards. Codifying the right to basic human rights such as clean water into law. This is a necessity for life but millions in the United States alone lack access to water. This has to be fixed and I believe policy solutions are one avenue to close the water gap.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

Its okay to be a 1-person-show:

I know that it can be super scary to put yourself out there as an “organization” when its really just you wearing 5 different hats at the same time! But in reality, we all start off small, and even the smallest changes do have such a massive impact on the community. I absolutely do believe in the “ripple” effect. The analogy goes like this, when you throw a stone into a pond — the initial change is just a single ripple. But then that ripple expands, it radiates out to create more ripples. It shifts the composition of the pond every so slightly, but that small change will absolutely grow to a larger impact.

Learn your strengths — not every organization (or person!) can do everything

But to bounce off of the “one-person show” tip, I also think its important to find your niche. For example, the water crisis is a massive issue. You can solve it by raising awareness, raising funds, finding methods to remove contamination, developing ways to detect unclean water, and the list goes on. But if you try to tackle every single one of these issues, you will face burnout and an inability to achieve any of your goals. Instead, go narrow and deep. Delve into a few sectors that you are particularly fond of and then you can expand (if you would like) as you grow.

Take care of yourself:

If you aren’t helping yourself, you cannot help anybody else. In the non-profit and advocacy sector, burnout is a massive issue. People struggle to take care of themselves and others, often putting themselves at last priority. This has led to massive mental and physical health issues in this sector. So one thing that I empathize to any young advocate is the need to take care of yourself. Take a day or week off when you need it. Take a step back if you need it. Health comes first.

Find community:

There are so many other advocates, organizations, projects and volunteers out there. Find them! Build your network and your community. For me, this came in many different forms. Whether it was my fellow Global Teen Leaders or the amazing community from We Are Family Foundation (WAFF) or the Gloria Barron foundation — I needed to have a support system and a squad to get me through my issues. It is this community that cheers me up when a project didn’t work out the way I hoped or during COVID they helped me pivot my organization into a virtual format.

Outside of my advocacy work, I also rely on my friends and family to just exist and live with them. It gets far too easy to isolate ourselves and only focus on our work. My community supports me in also finding hobbies and destressing activities so that I can take care of myself.

All you need is one yes:

It might be cheesy but its true. All you need is “yes” to one grant, one success or one program that will help you to get that kickstart onto your journey. But the only way to get to that one yes, is to get through a ton of “no’s”. You will face negative comments, criticism and other not-so-fun conversations on your journey. But the best way to think about it is that with every “no” gets you closer to a “yes”. If I counted the amount of times I’ve been told “no” with The Nereid Project, this article would be a book! But in the end, I was lucky enough to have a few people bet on me, and now this organization has had a tremendous impact around the world.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

The world that we are inheriting is ours. We cannot wait to be the change of tomorrow and must be the change of today instead. This change can take so many different forms but it’s crucial if we want to move forward in our world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I cannot decide between two people so here they are! Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hasan Minhaj! Both of them are huge role models to me in the ways that they use their platforms to generate change.

Rep. AOC is one of the youngest members of Congress and is extremely active in her progressive ideologies (especially in crucial crises such as Climate Change). As a fellow woman of color interested in policy, I especially relate to many of her experiences and aspire to join her one day in Congress!

Hasan Minhaj is an Indian comedian and the former host of the Daily Show and The PATRIOT Act, I truly admire his storytelling abilities to weave impactful points and funny moments together to create awareness. As a first generation Indian American, I’m also a big fan of his ability to reconcile the “two culture” diaspora!

How can our readers follow you online?

My Instagram, twitter and TikTok are @laalityaacharya (I’m the most active on TikTok with regular videos about advocacy, college and other meaningful advices!). My LinkedIn is @Laalitya Acharya and my website is laalityaacharya.com. Thank you in advance!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

--

--

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator