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Orange County

Idleness Has Its Rewards for Teen

Feeling lazy one day, Irvine youth invents an electronic 'brain' to help disabled. It wins him a $10,000 scholarship.

September 25, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Irvine high school student Keerthi Prabhala's mind works in mysterious ways.

He saw his parents stress about finding parking and created a device that directs drivers to empty spaces in crowded lots. He invented a program -- "just because" -- that gives computers a sense of smell.

And wanting to change a television channel without even reaching for the remote inspired the 17-year-old's most recent invention: an electronic "brain" that could allow the physically disabled to move objects by thought.

For his work, the Woodbridge High School senior won a $10,000 scholarship Wednesday from the nonprofit Davidson Institute for Talent Development during a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Keerthi applied his knowledge of electrical engineering and computer programming to develop a program that transmits brain signals, captured with electrodes attached to the scalp, to a computer that communicates with electronic devices.

"I came up with the idea randomly because I was lazy one night," Keerthi said. "But knowing that this project has the potential to help people who really need it is incredibly fulfilling."

Two software entrepreneurs founded the Reno-based institute four years ago to nurture intelligent youths. The institute receives hundreds of applications each year for its 15 student scholarships, which range from $10,000 to $50,000.

Each applicant submits an original work in categories such as technology, philosophy and music. Experts in each field pick the winners, those with the most potential to make a positive contribution to society, said institute director Marie Capurro. This year's other Davidson Fellows include Devon Guthrie, 16, of Claremont, a vocalist who sets poetry to the tunes of classical U.S. composers.

Keerthi's project carries considerable value for people with disabilities, Capurro said.

"What a great mind," she said. "The amazing thing is he does all this because of his incredible love for learning, not with the hope of winning prizes for his work."

His previous inventions have won numerous awards, including second place at the state Science Fair two years ago in the mathematics and software category. His creation: a remote-controlled, six-legged robot that resembles a spider.

Last year, his invention of an electronic "nose" enabling computers to identify odors through chemical signals earned him first place at the state competition.

As a fifth-grader, Keerthi created the parking lot device and won the grand prize for most practical invention at an Irvine Valley College competition and a spot on "The Tonight Show."

In his model, sensors on each parking space detected whether it was occupied and transmitted that information to a display posted at the entrance of the lot.

Despite the acclaim he's received for his inventions, Keerthi said they are something he does on the side. He's involved with his church's youth ministry, volunteers for the American Red Cross, was a Little League shortstop for eight years and is now filling out college applications.

Keerthi hopes to major in biotechnology at Notre Dame because he admires the university's athletic program along with its academics and Roman Catholic foundation. From there, Keerthi wants to earn an MBA and start a company that develops technologies.

He said he follows the principle "He who never walks except where he sees other men's tracks will make no discoveries."

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