In January, I participated in SheHacks, my first 36-hour hackathon! My team, composed of high school and college students from MA, NY, and IL, built S1REN, a dashboard that semi-automatically identifies aid requests among tweets during natural disasters. The event was huge, fun, and empowering, and to our surprise, we won Best Disaster Relief Hack!
In February, I attended Blueprint, MIT’s high school hackathon, for the second time. For a few hours, my team attempted to make something, but by late afternoon, I was just networking with awesome people and eating cookies. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Later that week was MAHacks III, the first hackathon I helped organize! We had about 100 attendees at Upstatement in Boston, and though it was a bit messy, it was a lot of fun.
Of course, life wouldn’t be life without failures: I was rejected from the Research Science Institute, and waitlisted and rejected from the Broad Summer Scholars Program. It took a while to truly come to terms with these rejections (especially after I realized that my applications were weak mostly because I didn’t know how to write compelling application essays as a first-semester junior) but eventually I did.
At a regional science fair, my project on classifying coding and non-coding DNA using hydropathy disparity placed 4th, just 2 spots from qualifying for the international fair! It’s cool to see how I went from not placing in 9th grade, to 26th place in 10th, to 4th place in 11th. At the Southern New England Junior Science & Humanities Symposium, I placed 2nd and qualified for the National JSHS!
During the National JSHS in Hunt Valley, Maryland, I met students from all over the country, listened to cool presentations (including one by a Nobel Laureate in Physics), and visited Washington, D.C., for the first time. I also met with half-brother, who lives and works near there, for the second time ever.
During late February, I joined a FIRST Robotics Competition team on a whim. Yep, right at the end of build season. I had tried out this team the previous May and quit because meetings felt unproductive and aimless. At the back of my mind, however, remained a desire to re-join to learn engineering despite the inefficiencies, so I finally decided to say “yes”.
After build season, we started going to competitions. One of our team’s three interviewers for the Chairman’s Award wasn’t available for our second district event, so I filled in. We won the Chairman’s Award at the Greater Boston District Event and the New England District Championship, both of which were intensely emotional moments and huge surprises — we were a 3rd-year team competing with teams twice our size with decades of experience.
When we qualified for worlds, we actually weren’t sure if we would go. Would it be worth it financially? We ended up frantically fundraising thousands of dollars in a week and driving 13 hours to Detroit. I finally learned where Ohio is! The sheer size of the event and the experience interviewing for THE Chairman’s Award was incredible. Unfortunately, however, one of our beloved mentors passed away during this week. He had always been exceptionally friendly to every student, new and experienced — may he rest in peace. ❤
On February 20, I bought the domain scienceandus.org as my first step toward turning an idea I had been bouncing around in my head for over a year into reality. The idea for Science & Us was to hold an event for high schoolers to create science communication projects — articles, videos, etc. that make a STEM topic understandable and interesting to general audiences. Throughout the spring, I had calls with co-organizers I recruited, and secured a venue for the event through someone I’d met at JSHS.
The first Science & Us event happened on June 9 at Boston University. Thirty-seven students attended and we had presenters from Harvard, MIT, Tufts, BU, and STAT News. Although it was more lecture-centric than I had wanted, founding a new organization and leading event planning were significant accomplishments. My favorite part was meeting people in unique, interesting careers, such as space librarians, science diplomats, and multimedia journalists.
In June, I attended CRISPRcon because it was shockingly affordable for a conference with such an impressive speaker lineup, which included Feng Zhang, considered one of the inventors of CRISPR technology. It was well-organized, informative, and, in my opinion, worth skipping school for. CRISPRcon also had a partnership with Boston Public Schools and gave a shoutout to BPS high schoolers in attendance. I didn’t get a shoutout, but it’s all good. :P
Later that month, I attended the ComSciCon National Workshop as an Invited Guest (that’s what my badge said, anyway). I had reached out to ComSciCon (essentially the more established, graduate student-edition of Science & Us) seeking sponsorship for Science & Us, and although they were unable to sponsor, I asked if I could observe their annual flagship event. As I anticipated, these were three of the most dynamic, empowering, and educational days of my life — the perfect opportunity at the perfect time.
If you’ll allow me to copy and paste from a scholarship application I wrote a few months ago: “Rarely do high school students learn about topics such as science journalism, policy and advocacy, and the power of storytelling in the context of public engagement with STEM… Listening to the brilliant minds in the panel discussions and networking with graduate students and professionals from across the country and beyond, I thought to myself, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for.’” Really, I created Science & Us to give this experience to others.
Throughout July and August, I interned at the University of Massachusetts Lowell through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center High School Apprenticeship Challenge. That’s a mouthful. I did bioinformatics research, analyzing the relationship between DNA methylation (chemical modifications to DNA) and the evolution of duplicate genes (mutations that are actually the source of most genes we have).
I had pretty good gym habits and managed to almost do unassisted pullups before school started and I got out of shape again. Oops. During the summer, I continued working on MAHacks, trying to get a venue and sponsors for our next event, and Science & Us, venturing into ideas like blogging interviews with people in fields bridging STEM and the public.
In early September, I went to PennApps, University of Pennsylvania’s biannual hackathon, with my friend and MAHacks co-organizer Aadhya! I regret not exploring Philadelphia, but it was so much fun regardless. I made new friends and dabbled in my first hardware project. We also dabbed a lot.
In late September, I attended a day of the Science Media Summit and Awards in the Hub 2018, or SMASH18 for short. This was also an opportunity I got through Science & Us, and I enjoyed meeting people from all over the world who make science content for VR, documentaries, etc. and beyond. I also tried ants, crickets, and mealworms for the first time! Crunchy bois.
Around this time I was rejected from the Cameron Impact Scholarship. While I had been hoping to be among the ~70 finalists, the comprehensiveness of its 11-page application helped me remember to mention things on my college applications!
The most significant experience of this fall was the worsening of my anxiety related to school administrators. Over the past two years, incidents of teachers and staff being excessively unfair, harsh, or inefficient have become physically and emotionally triggering. Because of my intense empathy, even wrongs that happen to other students have immense impacts on me. I struggled with triggering memories even during the summer, and it only became worse as school resumed. At least once or twice a week, I cry and hyperventilate because of some school staff.
I wrote a proposal to gather information about possibilities such as graduating early, homeschooling, or doing my second semester part-time. Graduating early was ruled out early — it would require the school district to revise or create new rules. I came pretty close to homeschooling: I have a curriculum written and filled out most of the request form. However, abruptly leaving public school could raise a red flag on my record, and I wouldn’t receive a high school diploma. Being in the running for salutatorian also complicates things.
Although a modified schedule wouldn’t achieve what I primarily wanted — to be physically not on my particular school’s campus — it’s what I’m currently arranging. I’ve started seeing a therapist and haven’t found it particularly helpful so far, but the support from a handful of friends and school authorities has been very meaningful to me.
In the first weekend of December, my team held MAHacks IV! It took a lot of last-minute work and stretching our limited budget, but our venue was fantastic, the generosity of our mentors and workshop leaders was unparalleled, and it was incredibly fun to bond with my co-organizers (and Hack Club people) in-person (by working on college apps and spilling tea in the UwU lounge).
The next weekend, we held the second Science & Us event at MIT’s confusing campus! It was way more fun than the first event, and although it’s still not quite where I would like it to be, I’m proud of it. Wade Roush, who is an incredible career inspiration for me, was our keynote speaker. I’m super grateful for my hardworking co-organizers.
We still had a few attendees who were disappointed because they were led to believe that Science & Us would teach them science. Sorry y’all. It’s about communicating science. However, some of those attendees began to genuinely enjoy the activities and changed their minds, which is awesome! Try something new. :)
Applying to college taught me major lessons about prioritization and writing. For both the early action and regular decision cycles, I procrastinated a lot and ended up removing some schools from my list right before the deadline. The time constraint fortunately forced me to ask myself which schools align with my values and that I would actually consider attending (sorry Stanford ily but my parents want me to stay in the area), and eliminate schools I only listed for superficial reasons.
Regarding writing, I used to approach writing with this attitude: “I’m a good writer, but only when I have months to polish a draft.” However, this attitude will almost never produce anything. I remember the first time I drafted a college essay on my phone in a hallway (as opposed to what some people might feel they need: a dedicated writing setup, a fancy writing preparation routine). The essay was only 250 words, but that experience changed the way I approach writing. I always knew that the purpose of writing is to communicate, but the simplicity of this experience re-emphasized that. In perhaps 20 minutes, I considered the prompt, thought about how to structure my response in a logical way, wrote an outline, and turned the outline into connected sentences. Done.
On 12/15 12:15, I found out that I was accepted to MIT!