MEGHANA BOLLIMPALLI isn’t your typical 17-year-old. For starters, she’s well on her way to becoming a serious science whiz. Case in point: The Central High School student, who hails from India, was able to use inexpensive byproducts such as tea powder, molasses and tannin to make electrodes for supercapacitors. Her research earned her a slew of accolades, including the Intel Foundation Young Scientist award and a gold medal at the Genius Olympiad, just to name a few. In November, she even landed on Forbes’ annual “30 Under 30” list. The whirlwind success may have been the result of the many hours she’s spent poring over research in the lab, but Meghana also credits her unfettered curiosity and her restless drive to make a difference in the world.

On her watershed moment:

“I go back to India every couple of years because I have a lot of family there. My grandfather is a politician in India, so he’s always traveling to different parts of India, visiting different communities and giving speeches. One summer, I decided to travel with him to rural communities that were facing a big water crisis. A lot of people were dying because of drinking contaminated water or getting waterborne illnesses. I was just really affected by that. For the rest of the summer, I spent all of my time researching different types of water contaminants and different filtration methods. Once I got back home, I contacted people at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and I talked to the mentors and professors about designing water filters using cheap terracotta clay products and things like that. Once I perfected them, I mailed them back to India to be distributed among those rural communities. I got thank-you letters back from them, and that was the moment that I was like, Oh my God, I actually did something that really impacted someone’s life.”

On how she approached the project:

“A lot of people ask me, How did you know that your research would work? How are you so confident? To be honest, when I start a research project, I go in with the belief that it’s not going to work, and that’s almost always true. I remember my first outline for the [supercapacitor] research: Looking at that, and then looking at the final procedure, it’s completely opposite. Things that I thought would definitely work—reactions that every single chemistry book told me would work—ended up not working. For the first four months, I got no results. The people that were working with me were like, You know, I don’t think this is going to work. We tried everything we can. It’s been four months. I think it’s time to move on. But I think I’m just a very stubborn kind of person. I thought, I’m going to make this work. I tried alternating different energy sources, different chemicals, different things. It was definitely a lot of trial and error. A lot of guesswork.”

On juggling science with school work:

“During my junior year, I took eight AP classes. I was also simultaneously studying for my SATs and ACTs and visiting colleges and trying to have a social life. It was definitely a lot to balance. I was constantly doing something. I was never just kind of chilling. I think I spent three or four days a week at a lab, and I would spend two or three hours every time I went. It was a good portion of my time. I think the main thing that came out of that was time management skills. I would make a schedule, and I would stick to it. No deviating from it. During my sophomore year and freshman year, I had a little more freedom, and I could shift things around. But during junior year, that didn’t happen. It was definitely hard, but coming out of it, I think my time management skills definitely got better.”

On her biggest accomplishment:

“A lot of people ask me what I think my biggest accomplishment is, and to be honest, I think my biggest accomplishment is finding my passion. A lot of my friends and classmates don’t really have an idea what they want to do yet, and I think I’m really fortunate to have found something that I love at such an early age. All of the awards, the recognition, the accomplishments that come from this are just a result of me doing what I love. That’s honestly what I consider to be my biggest accomplishment.”