Most people see food allergies as a challenge that will make life more difficult. 17 year old Shirali Nigam believes that her food allergy experiences have provided her with an opportunity to help many people. Shirali developed and created the AllergySmartz Smartphone app, a new tool that can help people with food allergies communicate allergy information and safe food preparation in a foreign language. This app is FREE for download on the Google Play Store (Android) and iTunes (Apple).
Shirali Nigam has had food allergies ever since she was an infant. She has chosen to take her experiences with food allergies, which would normally be perceived as negative, and do something good with them by developing something that could help a lot of people. When asked why she created the app, Shirali states “I’m just trying to help other people have an easier life with their food allergies.”
As a young child, Shirali was allergic to all top 8 allergens, plus corn, sesame and mustard. She has outgrown many of her allergies, but remains allergic to some tree nuts. “I know what other people have to deal with when travelling to other countries,” she explains. “Just recently we went to Mexico and I don’t speak Spanish. It was very difficult to communicate with the chef. I thought this solution would be simple enough to actually do and could help a lot of people, so I took it on myself to make this.”
Shirali decided to create the AllergySmartz app as her own project outside of school and her many extracurricular activities, which include racquetball, playing the Indian classical violin, and writing her own food allergy blog called foodallergylowdown. While she has always had an interest in science and technology, she gives partial credit to her school, Thomas Jefferson High school for Science & Technology, for providing her with unique opportunities like computer science research courses, which allowed her to learn Java and gain the skills necessary to do most of the programming for the app by herself.
The AllergySmartz app was created without a budget or any financial investors, so family and friends provided support where they could to help Shirali with the app. “When I tell people about the app, people are very supportive,” she explained. Her cousin helped her with the specialized programming required to complete the app and send it off. She also reached out to extended family across the world for support in the translations.
An additional feature to AllergySmartz is that Dr. Robert Wood, a renowned Professor of Immunology at John Hopkins, provided medical consultation for the contents of the app. Dr. Wood first treated Shirali when she was an infant, and she proactively reached out to him and asked for advice. “As a doctor of immunology, he had a better understanding of what the chef needs to know in order to safely prepare a meal for people with food allergies,” explained Shirali. In an effort to make the app relevant globally, he provided advice on which allergens to include beyond the US top 8.
Shirali plans to continue improving the app with the feedback she receives from its users. She already has plans to add more allergens and languages.
When asked what advice she had for young children with food allergies, Shirali shared the following:
“Don’t look at food allergies as something negative. You can take your food allergies and do something good with it.”
“There will be some people in the world that will be rude to you because of your food allergies, but those aren’t the people you want to surround yourself with. If you surround yourself with the right people who are supportive and caring, it’s really easy to deal with something like food allergies.”
I am inspired by Shirali’s “can do” attitude towards life and am left feeling hopeful and optimistic about the future, because young people like Shirali will surely bring positive change to the world.