Five Questions with Shanya Gill, winner of the $25,000 Thermo Fisher Scientific ASCEND Award - Society for Science Skip to content


Five Questions with Shanya Gill, winner of the $25,000 Thermo Fisher Scientific ASCEND Award

By Aparna K. Paul

In 2023, Shanya Gill clinched the prestigious Thermo Fisher Scientific ASCEND (Aspiring Scientists Culivating Exciting New Discoveries) Award at the Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge (Thermo Fisher JIC). Her achievement not only garnered attention within the scientific community and by the media, but also captured the interest of the U.S. Fire Administrator. Just last week, 12-year-old Shanya Gill, hailing from San Jose, California, along with her father, Binny Gill, received a special invitation to visit the U.S. Fire Administrator’s office (USFA), where they met with distinguished figures like Lori Moore-Merrell and other senior leaders. During the visit, they engaged in discussions about fire suppression, Shanya’s innovative work on fire safety, and had the opportunity to tour the National Emergency Training Center campus and memorials.

Shanya’s journey began in 2023 when, as a sixth grader, she conceived an early fire detection system following a tragic incident where a restaurant behind their house burned down. Reflecting on this awful incident, Shanya remarked, “The restaurant must’ve had smoke detectors, but still, their restaurant was not saved. I came to realize that smoke detectors simply aren’t good enough and decided to make a better fire detector.”

Driven by the limitations of traditional smoke detectors, Shanya embarked on a mission to develop a more effective solution. Utilizing off-the-shelf equipment and her coding skills, she crafted a tool that employs thermal imaging to identify unattended heat sources. Her invention involves connecting an affordable thermal camera to a compact computer, which Shanya programmed to differentiate between human presence and heat sources. The system then sends a text message alert if it detects a heat source unattended for 10 minutes, offering an early warning far superior to standard smoke alarms. Remarkably, Shanya’s system accurately detected human presence 98% of the time and heat sources 97% of the time.

Shanya’s achievements have garnered nationwide attention, with features on The Drew Barrymore Show, The Washington Post and Insider. With Shanya leading the charge, we eagerly await the continued impact of her innovations in making our world a safer place. Let’s hear more from Shanya below!

Which scientist – alive or deceased – would you want to solve scientific mysteries with and why?

Alexander Fleming used to paint with bacteria. He left his lab for two weeks, and when he came back, the petri dish he was working on had a moldy growth on it that killed the bacteria around it; that was penicillin. He analyzed it to try to figure out what it was and was seeking a discovery. In this situation, many people would think the mold was gross and would just throw it away without thought. A lot of times when I was younger, if I liked something and was interested in it (for example a type of food) and my friends or peers told me that they thought it was gross, I would usually agree with them, but Fleming had the courage to pursue what he wanted. I think that is very admirable. I would love to work with someone who loves science for what it is without worrying about what other people might think of him for it.

As we step into the new year, what positive changes do you hope to make through your upcoming projects?

I am working on a personal website, so I hope to finish that soon. I also want to make significant progress in taking my project to market.

When you think back on your 2023 Thermo Fisher JIC experience, what surprised you the most?

Usually, at events like the Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge, kids my age who don’t know each other don’t usually become friends in just half a day. But when I was with the Thermo Fisher JIC finalists, we all got along well, and I had a great time with my teammates.

Can you share a special moment from the competition? What was your most favorite memorable experience from the competition this year?

I really enjoyed exploring biodiversity at Chesapeake Bay and getting in the water and looking at the fish. A special moment that I shared with my friends were the bus rides to places. Everyone had a fun time singing and telling jokes on the bus.

If you could join forces with any fictional STEM genius, like a character from a science-themed TV show, who would it be, and what groundbreaking project would you collaborate on?

Shanya reflects on her affinity for a fictional character, Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, also known as Professor Time, from the show Phineas and Ferb. “He experienced neglect in his childhood, which led him to seek revenge on his brother and others,” she explains. “Many children face similar neglect, and Dr. Doofenshmirtz would understand that better than most people.” Digging deeper, she envisions collaborating with him to tackle the issue. “I would work with him to develop a contraption that identifies and educates parents who show favoritism or neglect towards their children,” she elaborates, underscoring her dedication to addressing societal challenges.

For more information about applying to this year’s Thermo Fisher JIC, visit our Nominee and Eligibility and Important Information pages. You can also email with any questions about the application or competition. Remember, you have nothing to lose by entering, so apply today!


Aparna Paul