This article originally appeared in the spring 2011 Harker Quarterly.
Harker managed to reach two milestones in January when Intel announced that seven Harker seniors — Roshni Bhatnagar, Josephine Chen, Benjamin Chen, Rohan Mahajan, Nikhil Parthasarathy, Susan Tu and Jason Young — were named Intel Science Talent Search semifinalists, a California record. Two weeks later Harker became the only school in the nation to have two finalists, Mahajan and Parthasarathy. At press time both were preparing to travel to Washington, D.C., to compete against 38 other high school students in the final round.
October brought the announcement that Jacqueline Wang, grade 10, had been named a regional finalist in the 2010 Siemens competition. Regional semifinalists from Harker were Bhatnagar, Mahajan, Parthasarathy and Supraja Swamy, grade 12.
Students teamed up with mentors to complete the projects they had submitted for the contests. The mentors used their experience and expertise to provide guidance to the students as they conducted their research, while also fostering their intellectual curiosity. “I worked very closely with my mentors to complete the project,” said Parthasarathy, who worked with University of California, Santa Cruz mentors Sandra Faber, professor of astronomy, and Kamson Lai, a postdoctoral scholar in the astronomy and astrophysics department. His project dealt with the structure of distant galaxies. “When I first arrived at Santa Cruz, they gave me a lot of help to understand the necessary background information and also introduced me to many of the tools astronomers use to analyze galaxies.”
“Although only a high school student, I was given the freedom and the resources to pursue any topic that interested me and to contribute my thoughts and ideas during lab meetings and discussions,” said Josephine Chen, who studied the effects the compound celastrol has on reducing asthmatic symptoms. “Supported by the guidance of the entire lab, I dared to venture further, performing experi- ments no one else in the lab was familiar with.”
Working on the projects with mentors in labs also provides insight to the students on the kinds of research and experiments they will be doing at the college level. “The work that Nikhil did is comparable to what we would give a beginning graduate student,” said Faber. “He picked things up remarkably fast, and it was a pleasure working with him.”
Students also get to experience the thrill of making discoveries that could have a significant real-world impact. “Realizing the impact our findings could have on emotion regulation research was a seminal moment for me,” said Bhatnagar, whose project on how the insula, a small part of the brain, changes its size according to how people manage negative emotions earned her a semifinalist ranking in both the Intel and Siemens competitions. “This study was really exploratory. There were very few similar studies to compare with.”
These recent successes bolster Harker’s already impressive track record in these and other science competitions. Mahajan and Parthasarathy became the third and fourth Intel finalists from Harker since the school began participating five years ago, and Wang is the second consecutive regional finalist from Harker in the Siemens competition.
“One of the things that we emphasize at Harker is pushing yourself to reach your potential. It’s just another bar [students] set for themselves,” said Anita Chetty, science department chair. “I just want to offer as many opportunities as I can, and it’s up to the students themselves to decide if they what to participate.”
“The education I got at Harker was invaluable in preparing me for my research,” Parthasarathy said. “Because of the interdisciplinary nature of astrophysics, this project really combined the knowledge I got at Harker in areas such as math, physics and computer science.”
Chetty pointed out that several other departments in addition to science also contribute greatly to Harker’s success in science competitions. At the first January assembly to announce Harker’s Intel semifinalists, teachers from the science department who read the students’ projects and offered guidance in the submission process, noted how much the writing of the projects had improved.
“[The paper is] the only way of communicating what they’ve done and what they think about it,” Chetty said. “It has to be detailed enough, yet it has to be clear and you can’t ramble on.” She credited Harker’s English and history departments as well as its librarians for training the students to write high-caliber papers.
“It gets back to the standard that we set in each of our departments,” she said. “I really believe it’s important to recognize we are actually teaching the same skills, even though we may be using different disciplines.”