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Lexington student wins award for groundwater-monitoring tech

The invention can predict groundwater levels within a few feet of actual value.

Akhila Ram, with a poster she used to present her invention as well as the 2022 'Most Innovative' award she won.Photo provided by Akhila Ram

Akhila Ram, a 12th-grader at Lexington High School, isn’t exactly like other high school students.

In her free time she enjoys baking, painting – and inventing technologies to map out groundwater levels across the United States in order to monitor problems like water depletion.

Ram’s invention is a computer model that uses machine learning to interpret data collected by NASA’s GRACE satellite in order to predict groundwater within a few feet of its actual level. While groundwater monitoring tools already exist, they can be expensive to install.

Ram’s system could give farmers, well owners, and local officials a cost-effective method of monitoring groundwater. According to Ram, this model is the first to use a statistical approach on a large region to predict changes in groundwater levels.

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The “Continuous Groundwater Monitoring” system, which she created with support from the Invention Convention program run by the Henry Ford museums based in Dearborn, Mich., was honored at the second annual Invention Convention Globals competition, presented by Pratt & Whitney.

The inspiration behind the invention is personal for Ram.

“My grandparents live in India, and their city faced a major drought,” Ram said in an interview. “It was because of poor management. And I wanted to ... research about solutions that could be used to properly manage water resources.”

Seeing climate change significantly affect her family fueled her passion to invent something that could make a difference.

“I’ve always been really passionate about climate change,” Ram said. “That’s what led me here. I’ve always been trying to come up with ideas in this realm of sustainability and the environment.”

According to the US Geological Survey, approximately 115 million people – one third of America’s population – rely on groundwater for drinking water. Around 22 percent of groundwater sources sampled by the USGS contained contaminants, according to the study. Frequent droughts are also of concern. Rising global temperatures and over-pumping could deplete groundwater levels and reduce the availability of drinking water. Ram said accurately monitoring groundwater could help local officials mitigate these problems.

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Continuous groundwater monitoring isn’t Ram’s first venture into inventing. Previously, she took on projects involving groundwater runoff and pollution. But her latest invention may be the most celebrated.

A natural spring fed by the Ogallala Aquifer filled a stock tank that provided water for wildlife at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas. The aquifer has become increasingly dry because of irrigation and drought.Mark Rogers/Associated Press

John Macomber, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, said having an accurate estimate of available groundwater can help local officials better determine how to use the resource.

“Thinking in times of water stress, how do you allocate the water?” Macomber said. “That’s a really difficult process, but one that’s further limited by not having very good information about what’s actually under the ground. So having that information available would, if it works, add to the toolkit for governments and businesses and citizens.”

With the help of the Invention Convention program, Ram said, she recently filed a patent for her invention. The 18-year-old is already thinking about ways to improve the technology and widen its scope. Currently, the computer model is based on data specific only to the United States. But Ram wants the technology to be accessible across the globe.

“I’m definitely working on that,” Ram said. “I’m looking to gather some data sets and train a global model soon. That’s one of my dreams.”


Collin Robisheaux can be reached at collin.robisheaux@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ColRobisheaux.