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Gaurav Mittal was all smiles after being awarded Grand Champion of the North Museum Science & Engineering Fair on Wednesday, March 22, 2017.

While his classmates were playing video games or scrolling through Facebook, as many teenagers tend to do, Gaurav Mittal was creating a homemade polymerase chain reaction thermal cycler.

That is, a device used to detect whether a food is genetically modified.

The 14-year-old’s invention earned him the honor of grand champion at the annual North Museum Science & Engineering Fair, held Wednesday at Spooky Nook Sports.

“I’m pretty proud,” Gaurav, a freshman at Manheim Township High School, said. “The fact that I can come this far and actually achieve a really big thing with this, it makes me happy.”

Gaurav said he worked up to 20 hours a week since December trying to perfect the thermal cycler.

In the end, the device, which uses varying temperatures to replicate and amplify a plant’s DNA in order to tell whether it is genetically modified, didn’t work as well as Gaurav hoped.

More from the North Museum Science & Engineering Fair:

Creation of new language earns science fair prize for Ephrata High School junior

Visit to volcano inspired junior champion's seismic project

California drought led to junior reserve champ's evaporation experiment

While comparing his results with a commercial thermal cycler at Elizabethtown College, he realized his device, made from parts ordered from sites like Amazon and Radioshack for $110, did not amplify the DNA correctly.

Through his testing, however, he discovered that the corn meal, chips and soy burger he tested were genetically modified, while the fresh papaya he tested was not.

Gaurav’s next steps, he said, are to fix his thermal cycler by, among other things, adding a better cooling system, using cost-effective parts.

Commercial thermal cyclers, Gaurav said, could cost $2,000 and come in an inconvenient, clunky size. He hopes, as he continues his work, that his finished product will be a sleek, 4-inch-by-4-inch cube.

That way, producers and consumers concerned about GMOs could easily test their food.

The GMO debate

“There’s a big debate in society, like whether GMOs are good or not … whether they’re helpful,” Gaurav said.

Scientists, he said, think that we can use GMOs to create bigger, tastier plants with an increased resistance to pests. Consumers, on the other hand, think that “it’s unnatural, it’s not environmentally friendly,” he said.

Personally, Gaurav “would appreciate if the food I eat is not genetically modified; however, there are foods out there that are put to good use with genetically modified organisms,” he said.

Grapes, for instance, are considered genetically modified, he said, because most of the grapes consumers eat are seedless, which requires the seeds to be removed.

Life goals

Gaurav hopes to attend Harvard University for either engineering, biology or bioengineering, although he’d be “satisfied with Columbia or even Case Western Reserve University” in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Aside from attending a prestigious college and landing a good job, Gaurav hopes to one day own his dream car — a Porsche 911 GT3.

Top winners

Wednesday night’s big winners also included senior champion Aparna Paul, of Elizabethtown Area High School; senior reserve champion Edwin Crockett, of Ephrata Area High School; junior champion Lilly Heilshorn, of Centerville Middle School; and junior reserve champion Arielle Breuninger, of Lancaster Country Day School.

Aparna, a senior, presented ways to detect E. coli bacteria.

Edwin, a junior, experimented with various languages and created a universal language using mathematical patterns.

Lilly, an eighth-grader, tested several types of foundations and soils with the goal of potentially reducing the impact from earthquakes.

Arielle, also in eighth grade, tested homemade shade balls, which are used to deflect the sun in drought-stricken areas to reduce water evaporation.

Wednesday’s top two winners — Gaurav and Aparna — will compete in May at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair in Los Angeles. Edwin will serve as the alternate.