I’ve never talked to anyone who has talked with the president before, much less directly after they’ve talked with the president. But all that changed on Tuesday when I had the chance to chat with Intel Science Talent Search finalist Rachel Davis.
The Intel Science Talent Search is a prestigious national science competition for high school seniors, organized under the supervision of Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, a woman who had interesting things to say during her recent interview with GeekMom. Approximately 1,800 students submit their research each year for the chance to win various scholarships totaling over $1.25 million. Out of all the applicants, 40 finalists are flown to Washington, DC, to defend their research against a board of judges who will determine the top 10 finalists. While in DC they also get to participate in many fun activities, things like meeting with President Obama!
Finalist Rachel Davis who attends Smithtown High School East in St. James, NY, has an especially inspiring story. Rachel’s home burnt down five years ago, and from such tragedy arose her desire to help others in similar situations. “I lost absolutely everything and had to start over, and I just want to prevent that from ever happening to anyone else.” She trained to become a volunteer firefighter. “It breaks my heart when I go to a fire and I see someone lose everything, but just being able to help them get through it or help people salvage old photos or furniture — or anything really — makes me feel like I am making that difference and that I’m helping people. It makes me happy when other people are happy.”
During her training, she found out that some gas tanks are made from flammable plastic. From there, she sought out better materials for the job, namely polymers that are non-toxic, biodegradable, and flame retardant. “It’s really fun!” she said with enthusiasm. Because my high school experience was, um, vastly different from hers, I had to ask how one goes about getting involved in researching polymers while in high school.
“Well there’s many different ways for kids to get involved with science research! I decided to apply last year to a materials science research program, Garcia MRSEC, at Stony Brook University, due to my history with my house and firefighting, and journal articles by my professor that I had read. Other students have applied to programs such as the Simons program at Stony Brook, or other really advanced programs. Other finalists worked on incredible projects by creating things in their basement, and others went door to door at universities searching for a mentor that researches something they are interested in. Most of us have some sort of high school research program at our school to help us out with finding a lab and learning how to write papers, but for the most part it’s independent and all research is done at a real university lab.”
But fear not, Rachel doesn’t spend all her free time researching polymers! “Besides playing with polymers, I actually fight fires! I was the first nationally certified firefighter in the Nissequogue volunteer fire department, and I love how I’m able to help people and really make a difference.” (This girl is nowhere near making me feel better about how I spend my free time!) “Additionally, I play guitar and ukulele. I actually brought my ukulele here to DC! We’ve been singing every night in out eLounge that Intel set up for us!” (Phew, the girl is human after all!)
When I talked to Rachel on Tuesday, it was the last day of her trip in Washington, DC. Her feelings about the whole experience?
“It was so much fun! We’ve been doing so many incredible things. It was really stressful on Friday and Saturday because we had these really hard judging interviews with these really cool judges, but the questions were really hard! But the finalists are so cool! We’ve been hanging out in the Intel eLounge everyday and there’s so many cool laptops and board games and video games and we have dance parties and play magic tricks! And yesterday we went to the National Mall for a Scavenger Hunt and the day before we had a bowling party! But its’ almost over. Tonight we have the gala awards where they announce the top ten and everything and I’m so excited because my new best friend Marian got chosen to speak tonight as the Seaborg speaker!! It’s so exciting and I can’t believe that it’s almost over!”
Rachel had indeed just come back from meeting President Obama when she sat down to answer a few of my questions. “Everyone was so excited and he was really nice and had soft hands! He told us all about the importance of a science education and how important it is that women are involved in science, and it was really just an absolutely incredible experience.”
Beyond all the adventures of the week, she will also be taking home new friendships. “We have the coolest conversations and I don’t know how I’m going to last the next few months without the other finalists by my side!” Rachel said it was definitively not a competitive atmosphere. “I think that we all feel that we have made it so far and at this point, we have all already won. No matter what happens tonight,” at the gala where the awards for the top 10 finalist would be announced, “we are all so happy for and proud of each other, and we’re all so happy to be around each other!”
In fact, as a high school senior, Rachel is most excited about the prospect of finding a college where she can find other like-minded students such as the finalists. Her biggest wish is to attend MIT to study materials science. “Especially after coming here to the Intel Institute and meeting all of these incredible students who are going to schools like MIT and Harvard, I really want to continue my education in a similar environment where I can surround myself with fun and insanely brilliant people like these!”
Of course, as a parent of a toddler, I just had to ask how I can raise my daughter to be a brilliant teenage scientist like her, instead pulling the dumb rebellious act like me.
“I have a lot of incredible people that have really made a difference in my life. Firstly, my parents for staying really strong after the fire and believing in me for doing anything. Also, my mentor, Dr. Miriam Rafailovich, is so incredible and helpful and although she is one of the busiest people in the world, she makes time for me and is such an awesome person in her field, and she really inspires me. Finally, my research teacher, Dr. Zeitlin-Trinkle, is so much fun! She always tells her students that research shouldn’t be a chore. It should be something you love and that if you can’t have fun and laugh all the time, then you won’t be happy! She’s awesome!
“I think that it really has to do with the adults that you’re surrounded with earlier on in life. I have had so many positive influences in my life, from my teachers to my mom to my fire chief. They have all told me constantly to keep asking questions and keep pushing forward to do my absolute best. This has really made me so much more confident and curious and want to help people, and that really made me want to pursue this path in research. I think that it’s also important that other younger kids see people like us Intel Finalists and realize that they can do this too. When I was younger, I would hear stories about my cousins who were going off to college and changing the world, and I wanted to do that too. The other day we had a pubic exhibition of our projects, and all these kids were coming up to us and asking us questions, and they all had that curious mindset. It’s important that we support this and show them that they really can do anything in the field of science.”
And there you have it, probably the best parenting advice I’ve ever heard, coming from a teenager! Is there anything this girl can’t do? Thank you so much for your time, Rachel. I hope you will get your acceptance letter from MIT soon. I have no doubt you’d fit right in.
Ariane is a programmer by day, a writer by night, and a mom somewhere in between. She is married to another programmer, and together they have a two daughters who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage.