Editor's note: The story has been voluntarily updated to withhold the identity of the girl who is a minor.
Last week, the Indian media reported a rather incredible story of a 14-year-old from Aurangabad, Maharashtra, being invited as a panellist by NASA to review proposals for its Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) Fellowship Programme.
What is incredible about the story is that the teen is studying in 10th standard, while reviewing proposals by those having higher educational degrees. The articles also claimed that the teen was selected based on a paper on 'black holes and God', and that she was being funded a trip to the United States by NASA.
When the story became viral, several social media users started inspecting the claims made by the teen, and began spotting red flags all over. While some alleged fraud, others smelt a scam. Regardless, several mainstream news outlets in India ran the story anyway, without identifying or probing the red flags any further.
NASA officials told BOOM that while the teen was in fact selected as an 'expert panellist' through a third-party service, her selection was based on false information regarding her background and credentials. NASA also dismissed the claims about accepting any research paper from her, or offering her a job, a fellowship, or a funded trip to the United States, as claimed by the news articles.
A NASA spokesperson told BOOM, "In May 2021, NASA's Office of STEM Engagement sought applications through a third-party service for expert panellists to review a series of proposals and applications for NASA Fellowships with Minority-Serving Institutions. [Name redacted] was selected as a panellist based on false information regarding her background and credentials. NASA is currently reviewing the process of verifying potential panellists' backgrounds."
"The matter has also been referred to the agency's Office of Inspector General. [Name redacted] is not employed by NASA nor has the agency awarded her a fellowship, which are only opportunities available to U.S. citizens. Furthermore, NASA has not accepted a scientific paper from [name redacted] or presented her with any other accolades. Any claims that NASA is funding a trip to the U.S. for her are also false," the spokesperson added.
Another NASA official had confirmed to BOOM that topics like "black holes and God" were irrelevant to NASA, and that such papers would not be accepted.
This story was pieced together by BOOM through an online investigation, conversations with the teen and her mother, and email conversations with NASA officials.
The ANI Thread That Started It All
On August 19, news agency ANI published a Twitter thread about the teen, stating that she was selected as a panellist for NASA's MSI fellowship review panel, and that she has already attended panel meetings in July.
"I wrote a theory on black holes & God. It was accepted by NASA after 3 attempts. They asked me to write articles for their website," she was quoted as saying by ANI.
Click here to view an archive of the above thread.
ANI also posted pictures of what is purported as 'certificates' by NASA for the teen's achievements.
The story was carried by the Economic Times, as a part of agency feed, and was also reported by News18, Mint, TV9 Bharatvarsh, Lokmat, NDTV India, Times Now, Amar Ujala and Free Press Journal, among other publications. In the initial reporting on the matter, none of the publications raised any questions on the claims made by the teen, and reported them as it is.
However, as the story got more and more viral, questions were being increasingly raised on social media by those who doubted the story and the claims.
Following this, ANI posted some screenshots purported to show the teen's email conversations with NASA's MSI team.
Click here to view an archive of the tweet.
ANI Editor Smita Prakash later tweeted that the organisation stood by the story.
Click here to view an archive of the tweet.
The Red Flags
A compilation of all such red flags on the teen's claims were made in a thread by user Zeeshan Mhaskar (@MhaskarChief).
Click here to view an archive of the thread.
The first one was regarding one of the 'certificates' published by ANI. The certificate (below) itself is highly ambiguous, and claimed to be an award for "NASA Proposal Research 2020".
We, however, found no existing award going by that name.
Furthermore, it was signed by two people - Jim Bridestine, designated as CEO and President, and James Federick, designated as Department Chair.
Mhaskar pointed out that there is no such designation as CEO or President at NASA.
We looked at the NASA's organisational structure, and found that it is the Administrator who leads the space agency. There is no mention of a CEO or President in the entire organisation.
Additionally, we could not find any trace of someone called Jim Bridestine or James Federick linked to NASA. However, upon searching for these names on the internet, we found that they are both erroneously spelt names of the same person - James Frederick Bridenstine, also known as Jim Bridenstine.
Bridenstine was the 13th Administrator of NASA during the Trump administration, between April 23, 2018 – January 20, 2021.
Mhaskar also pointed out the uncanny similarity in the design and wording of the teen's 'Certificate of Achievement' published by ANI, with that of a Canva template.
The 'certificate' stated that the teen had won the "1st place in the NASA Proposal Research 2020-2021" contest, of which we found no trace on the internet.
The teen also claimed to have penned a research paper titled "We Live In A Black Hole?", which she claimed was accepted for publishing by the International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research (IJSER) in May 2021.
This claim was dismissed by the The Public Outreach & Education Committee of the Astronomical Society of India, who issued a statement drawing attention to the reliability of IJSER as a scientific journal.
Speaking on the existence of predatory journals, the statement read, "It is true that you have to send your research to an academic journal, which will get it checked by some other scientists and then will publish it. It is also unfortunately true that some journals demand processing charges from the authors. However, there are too many bad journals lurking in the back alleys of academic publishing, looking to exploit unsuspecting authors. They would publish anything and everything given to them without any quality checks. They just make money by charging such authors. This is called 'predatory publishing' in academic circles."
The statement also provided a link that listed such predatory journals - IJSER is listed as one of them.
The Astronomical Society of India also added the following to their statement:
"It is impossible that NASA or any other credible agency would invite a 13-14 year old non-citizen student, who has no academic pedigree, to evaluate serious research proposals. It may happen by accident if some NASA admin staff gets confused between names of the student and some other person they actually wanted to invite. Alternatively, the student may be the victim of some prank played by someone not related to NASA. All the emails shared by ANI (see below) seem to be addressed to senior academics. So it is difficult to imagine a valid scenario in which this invite would be sent to a 14 year old student."
BOOM had requested the teen several times to provide a copy of the research papers she claims to have written. However, she did not get back to us on this matter despite several reminders.
LinkedIn Account - A Red Herring
Following all the red flags in the claims published by the news outlets, netizens went further and started analysing other claims made by the teen - especially on her highly dubious LinkedIn account.
Firstly, she had added the title of "Dr." to her name, despite being a 10th standard student. When BOOM asked her about the usage of 'Dr.', she initially distanced herself from the account, and said she did not have access to it.
However, her mother told us that it was correct, and the she has been addressed by the title of 'Dr.' before. They, however, dismissed our questions on how a 10th standard student can be called a 'Doctor'.
The LinkedIn account has since been deleted, but we have the following screenshot.
Yet another user pointed out that her LinkedIn bio has been plagiarised from a document containing LinkedIn bio templates.
Click here to view an archive of the above tweet.
The teen had also posted another 'Certificate of Nomination' for a scholarship of USD $25,000 by the American Astronomical Society.
Social media users, yet again, pointed out the resemblance between the certificate posted by the teen, and a Canva template.
During our conversation with the teen and her mother, the duo insisted that she was really nominated for the scholarship. However, we decided to verify by reaching out to one of the names who signed the certificate - Dr. Jacqueline Faherty.
In conversation with BOOM, Faherty dismissed the certificate as fake, and said no such scholarship is given by the AAS. "This is not real. No such scholarship exists and I don't know why my name was used. There is no department to be the head of at AAS," she said.
The Teen's Side Of The Story
Throughout our conversation with the teen and her mother, they stood by their story, and also provided us with over 20 screenshots to prove their point.
The screenshots contained email conversations with NASA officials and senior academic researchers, with the teen's email address appearing in the conversations at times.
She also sent screenshots of what look like Zoom meetings, with other senior researchers. Out of the 14 faces we saw in the screenshots, we were able to confirm at at least 11 of them were real academic researchers. Some of their names also matched the email addresses in the screenshots of the conversations.
We also received a screenshot of a bank account transfer of USD $675, equivalent to Rs. 50,000, which she claimed was given to her for attending the panel meetings.
While conversing with BOOM, the teen and her mother reiterated the same claims that were published by ANI and the other news outlets.
She also told us that she has been attending her 'research meetings' since August 20, when the matter erupted in the news. However, she added that the topic of the ongoing controversy was not discussed in any of these meetings.
Finally, NASA's confirmation of the teen being selected as a panellist, albeit based on false background information and credentials, suggests that the screenshots of emails were, in fact, authentic.
BOOM has reached out to the teen and her family to inform them of NASA's response, and to further inquire about the third-party service through which she had applied. The story will be updated upon getting a response.
Additional reporting by Sujith A.