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Maritha Wang: The engineer

 

Most people think of college as students' first chance to really explore their passions and interests. But in the Palo Alto area, high school has increasingly become a space for those pursuits.

From a journalist who launched an impactful series on mental health to an actor so committed to a role he wore his hair in the style of his character to school, the six graduating seniors below were selected by the Palo Alto Weekly or recommended by their teachers as students who have found passion for a particular activity during their high school years.

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Sitting in a Palo Alto Starbucks recently, Gunn High School senior Maritha Wang casually explained a months-long computational chemistry project she worked on this year that analyzed the potential of graphene, a thin, two-dimensional layer of pure carbon, as a sensor for toxic gases.

The project, titled "Promising Applications of Oscillating Adsorption Thermodynamics of Small Molecules," involved complicated processes like adsorption thermodynamics and plane-wave density functional theory calculations. The methodology, results and conclusion were captured in a final 10-page paper that could easily be mistaken for the work of a college or even graduate student.

To Wang, the project was simply an extension of a natural, lifelong interest in engineering and science.

Born to two engineers, she grew up loving hands-on activities: playing with LEGOs, blocks and puzzles; fixing things around the house and assembling furniture; and doing woodworking in an industrial-technology class in middle school. She later graduated to tinkering with circuits, robotics and programming. (Eager to participate in robotics her freshman year at Gunn, she was dismayed to learn that freshmen can't join the school's team, so she instead became a member of Space Cookies, an all-girls robotics program sponsored by the Girl Scouts and NASA.)

"Now, how that's manifested would be in research or science," she said on a recent afternoon. "I think I've most been interested in solving puzzles and doing hands-on projects. To me, research is kind of another puzzle."

Wang was one of 12 Gunn and Palo Alto High students who traveled to Singapore last spring to pursue STEM-focused research projects in collaboration with students and teachers from the National Junior College. The trip, spearheaded by Superintendent Max McGee, was a beta test for a new in-depth research program McGee later launched last fall.

Wang and the other students who went to Singapore continued their research when they returned to Palo Alto as part of this new Advanced Authentic Research program

In Singapore, Wang worked almost 40 hours in the National Junior College lab and had a faculty mentor. After returning to Palo Alto, she became the leader for her research project, organizing weekly Skype sessions with her student research partners and mentor in Singapore.

It was through this experience that Wang discovered a new possibility for herself in the engineering field. She had always thought she would take a traditional career path -- straight to industry as an engineer -- but she's now considering conducting research in college and attending graduate school later.

It was also rewarding, she said, to be able to dive deep into a single topic over the course of a year -- a very different learning experience from her high school science classes.

"When you did labs (in school), you knew there was always an answer that you were supposed to get, and you would always try to work towards that answer but in research ... it's, like, no one knows what the answer is," she said. "It's just a lot of exploring and trying to figure out things and making mistakes and learning from them. I think that's a pretty valuable experience."

Wang also spent many hours this year interning at Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto. She worked with the company's material science group, an experience that has further deepened her interest in research, she said.

In a recommendation McGee wrote for Wang's college applications, provided to the Weekly, he described her as an "extraordinary scholar and researcher" and a "self-confident yet humble young woman" with a hunger for real-world learning.

This year, McGee asked Wang to give presentations to promote the Advanced Authentic Research program and wrote in her recommendation that after hearing her talk with conviction about the difference between "real science" and "school science," more than 70 students submitted applications for the program.

"Her passionate commitment to this research project, driven solely by her interest in the topic and desire to experience real world, real-time international collaboration, is inspirational," McGee wrote. "Maritha not only is well-prepared for a promising future but also will undoubtedly generate much new knowledge to an important body of scientific research."

This fall, Wang will enter the University of Chicago, where she plans to double major in molecular engineering and either chemistry or physics, with a minor (or even another major, possibly) in computer science.

If she could give her freshman-year self one piece of advice, she said it would be "Don't be so sure of what you want to pursue just yet," reflecting on the pivot her passion has already made.

"Have some time exploring," she said. "Don't lock yourself in just yet."

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