What inspired Newton to come up with his laws of motion? How do vaccines prevent diseases? Why is Earth heating up?
These questions can be difficult to answer for most adults, let alone children. But nine-year-old Natalia Najam knows the answers.
The Pakistani schoolgirl has always been curious about science, and that paid off recently when she became the fastest person to arrange all the elements on the periodic table – an achievement that won her a Guinness World Records title.
“This looks like a dream... I’m very, very happy and excited, ” says Natalia, speaking on the phone from her home in the eastern city of Lahore.
The world record has transformed her life from student to celebrity. “It feels so, so great. Everybody in the family, media and school is talking about me.”
It took Natalia two minutes and 42 seconds to arrange the periodic table in an attempt in July, seven seconds faster than a female professor from neighbouring India who held the record previously.
The Guinness World Records has listed her achievement on its website in an official recognition of Natalia’s achievement.
Sheena Afzal, Natalia’s mother and mentor, is overwhelmed by her only child’s success. “I can’t express how happy we are as a family, ” she says.
Natalia was never interested in the games or gadgets that other kids her age loved to play with, her mother recalls.
“She had a scientific mind from the beginning, and her childhood was all about exploring things related to the sciences, ” says Afzal, 41, who studied sculpture in the United States in the 1990s.
“Our home sometimes looks like a science laboratory with Natalia doing so much, ” she says, explaining how what appeared to be a hobby in the beginning ultimately won her daughter a world record.
Despite her daughter’s huge interest in science, the mother never thought it would turn into something big one day until the coronavirus pandemic forced schools all over the world to close down.
“That was when I started home-schooling my daughter and realised her passion could be utilised for some cause, ” Afzal recalls.
“We then started zeroing in on one thing, and that was memorising the names of all the elements on the periodic table and trying to organise them as quickly as possible.”
When Afzal realised her daughter was ready for the competition after a couple of months’ practice, she registered with Guinness, but its teams could not travel to Pakistan due to the pandemic.
The world records body ultimately decided to hold a virtual ceremony and appointed timekeepers and judges for Natalia.
“That was a very different day. We were excited and nervous at the same time, ” says Afzal.
Both mother and daughter jumped up and screamed when the judges and timekeepers gave Natalia a thumbs-up after she finished, signalling her success.
“Oh God, we had done it. We were dancing, hugging and cheering each other on that fateful day, ” Afzal recalls.
Natalia, who loves pets and has two puppies and two kittens, wants to become a biochemist in the future.
“When I see scientists and medics using animals as guinea pigs for testing vaccines, that is cruelty. I’ll try to change this practice, ” she says.
Mother and daughter add that they were inspired by young Pakistani girls, Noble laureate Malala Yousafzai and Arfa Karim, also a Lahore child who became the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional at age nine in 2004.
“It is heartening to see young people inspiring each other for such huge success.... This will go a long way in transforming Pakistan, ” educator Rizwana Qadir says.
Both Yousafzai and Karim were bestowed with Pakistan’s civil honours for their achievements. It wasn’t clear how the state would celebrate its latest prodigy.
“We will consider Natalia for an award, ” says Fayyaz Chohan, a minister in the central province of Punjab, where Natalia’s from. – dpa
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