Mukund Venkatakrishnan and his hearing device| Photo courtesy of Mukund Venkatakrishnan
Mukund Venkatakrishnan and his hearing device| Photo courtesy of Mukund Venkatakrishnan

In the next month or so, Mukund Venkatakrishnan, 16, will miss around half of his school days because he’ll be traveling to various science fairs and conferences. That could be really rough for someone taking five AP classes, a university course and advanced Latin, but somehow we think Venkatakrishnan can make it work.

The duPont Manual junior is in the school’s Math, Science and Technology program and recently won the Kentucky State Science Fair in the Physical Science division for a hearing test and aid that he’s been developing for two years. He’s headed to the Intel Science Fair in Phoenix on May 8. Later this month, he’s going to the Junior Science and Humanities Symposia in Dayton.

Two years ago, Venkatakrishnan went to India and was tasked with helping his grandfather, now 81, get tested and fitted for a hearing aid. It was hard to find an audiologist and took a long time, and once they did find one, they were charged much more than the average person makes in a year in India.

This planted a seed with the teenager. When he came home, he started teaching himself coding — Python and C — through Code Academy and online tutorials. Venkatakrishnan insists that anyone can do what he did, anyone could learn coding in a few dedicated days (he admits it took him more like weeks because he was also watching Netflix at the time).

Venkatakrishnan credits professors in the University of Louisville Bioengineering program and Dr. Kenneth Hodge from Advanced ENT and Allergy of Kentucky with providing mentorship and guidance. His father is Natarajan “Venkat” Venkatakrishnan, director of FirstBuild, and Mukund has done a lot of the development of the device at that facility.

The hearing test/device | Photo courtesy of Mukund Venkatakrishnan
The hearing test/device | Photo courtesy of Mukund Venkatakrishnan

What’s unique about this device is that not only is it cheap — the components cost around $60, and it uses standard earbuds or any earphones — it eliminates the need for a visit to an audiologist.

You calibrate the device by matching the sound of you rubbing your hands together to the sound of rubbing hands on an audio file. Then it runs through a series of beeps. If you hear the beep, press the green button; if not, hit the yellow button. Once you are done with the testing, the device sets itself up to compensate for the frequencies you didn’t hear.

Venkatakrishnan recently was featured on CNN Money and last night did a live feed for CNN-London.

If you need further proof that the worst of humanity comes out on the internet, the CNN article was a hot topic on Reddit, and while there were plenty of attaboys on the site for the teen, other people were not so kind.

“They really tore into me,” said Venkatakrishnan. His responses to detractors were the picture of politeness and humility.

The most ridiculous of the lousy comments (but not the ugliest) was that the story of “another whiz kid” was not “newsworthy.” But Reddit users themselves briefly upvoted the article to the second page of the website.

A couple of classmates jumped to his defense on the site. One said, “He’s honestly probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and that’s at a top 50ish high school in the nation.” Another said, “I freaking love Mukund. Crazy kid who is super social but also a hard working genius!”

Maybe the fact that Venkatakrishnan is really easy to talk to has benefitted his process.

A U of L professor helped him get published in a medical journal. He went to the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs conference in Chicago and learned from doctors and researchers.

This summer he will be spending a few weeks in India with his family. There he’ll give the device to his hearing-impaired grandfather.

Then he will fly back to the U.S. to spend six weeks at MIT at the Research Science Institute. This prestigious program is open to only 81 high school juniors worldwide. He’ll live in the dorms and spend around seven hours a day working on projects, hearing lectures and learning from mentors — last year there were a few Nobel Prize winners.

MIT is his first-choice college, but he’ll travel to California to look at some other schools this summer with his father. But as with most college-bound students, everything really hinges on scholarships.

Venkatakrishnan insists what he has done doesn’t require a high intelligence. He said it just requires passion. “Every time something clicks, it’s the best feeling,” he said, comparing that feeling to a runner’s high.

Venkatakrishnan knows that feeling. He’s also a long-distance runner who has done several half-marathons. In addition, he’s played the violin for 12 years.

Looking ahead, he intends to pair a science degree with studies in business, as he also is interested in entrepreneurship and startups.

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