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Follow four NC students on their trip to Beijing

EdNC's Mebane Rash will be traveling with four high school students from North Carolina to China from March 22 until April 1. We want students and teachers across North Carolina to learn about this incredible opportunity so that next year from Murphy to Manteo we have students participating in the competition. Please share our posts throughout the week.

Four North Carolina high school student leave today for an epic trip. They will travel roughly 7,115 miles to Beijing, China to take part in the Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition.

The students were picked as part of the North Carolina International Science Challenge, held by the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Center (SMT Center) in conjunction with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. SMT Center president and CEO Sam Houston said the trip is a unique experience for the students. 

“We sponsor this to give young people an opportunity to expand on their understanding of the world,” he said. 

To get that opportunity, the students had to embark on a research project, and many chose subjects better suited to college graduate courses than high school classrooms. They will present their research throughout the course of the week in Beijing while also meeting other students from around the world. 

Highlights of the four students and their projects:  

Dory Li

Dory is a 17-year-old high school student at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. Her research project involves coding DNA nanostructures in proteins to see whether they could be useful in drug delivery. It is a complicated topic, she explains: 

The project was a nerve-wracking one that required careful attention to detail.

“It was definitely challenging going through and making sure that every single step was meticulous,” she said. “Otherwise, if I made one mistake I might be throwing away a whole day of work.” 

In the following video, Dory and her mentor Thom LaBean, associate professor in the department of material sciences and engineering at North Carolina State University, explain the practical aspects of their work together: 

Arjun Keshava

Arjun Keshava, a 17-year-old student at the Wake Early College of Health and Sciences, chose a project that involved changes in DNA associated with smoking.  Arjun gives a more detailed picture: 

The topic dovetails nicely with Arjun’s dream of becoming a physician. 

“Research is a very good foundation in order to get into this field,” he said, adding later, “Doing these projects really will help me gain a deeper understanding of the whole medical field.” 

Ana Sofia Uzsoy

Ana Sofia is an 18-year-old at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. Her project focused on the impact of ultraviolet radiation on life – on the planet Mars. 

Ana Sofia’s mentor is Amy Sheck, dean of science and instructor of biology at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. She has become used to working with students like Ana Sofia who are advanced for their ages. She calls working with Ana Sofia on her research project the equivalent of having Ana Sofia “complete a very fast master’s degree.” 

“It is true our students are exceptional,” she said. “I have been working with them for so long that I take it for granted.” 

Raymond Gao

Finally, Raymond Gao is an 18-year-old at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. He worked on an algorithm that would make the use of radio telescopes more productive. 

Raymond said his interest in astronomy has to do with how it changes his perception. For instance, he talks about how a star in the sky may seem brighter than another, but that does not necessarily mean it is actually brighter. It could be closer than a star that appears to be right next to it. Or a star that is farther away could be brighter than one that is closer simply because it is bigger. 

“I like how those proportions, that kind of plays with your perception of the world around us,” he said. 

He talks about his love for astronomy: 

The trip

This is the 12th year the SMT Center has sent students on this trip. Students who participated have gone on to illustrious careers, with some of them even changing their focus as a result of their participation in the competition. 

 “A number of students went on into engineering and didn’t originally plan to,” said Russ Campbell, senior communications officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund which created the SMT Center. 

Houston said the cost of sending students to Beijing is small compared to the benefit they gain from the experience. 

“It seems to me to be important work,” he said. “I frequently say I want to be able to buy stock in these teams that go, because I think that one day you’re going to be valuable.” 

All of the students traveling this year are from Wake County, but the SMT Center hopes to expand its reach so that students in less affluent areas of the state can participate more in the future. 

Lisa Rhoades, senior program associate at the SMT Center, said the organization hopes to connect with community colleges around the state in an effort to get at students in more rural areas. 

“One of the things that we continually have discussions about but struggle with is how do we broaden out the participation to ensure that a student who grows up in Bladen County or Hoke or Alexander, one of the more rural counties, has the same kinds of opportunities,” she said.

Editor’s Note: Sam Houston serves on the Board of Directors of EdNC. Burroughs Wellcome Fund supports the work of EdNC.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.