Ana Ratanaphruks grew up in the triangle area in Morrisville, NC and is a recent graduate of Wake STEM Early College and also the online program at the NC School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM). As a child Ana was very interested in the arts and humanities and did not like science and math. She attributes this disinterest to having had a limited understanding of what STEM entails, specifically associating STEM with robotics and microscopes. As a young adult entering college her interests have evolved significantly and she now is interested in engineering fields and particularly likes materials science, applied mathematics, and industrial engineering. She appreciates having had early access to courses at NC State University as part of her early college experience, finding the courses challenging and the opportunity to meet a lot of people enjoyable.
You might wonder what changed in Ana’s life to inspire her current passion for engineering, mathematics, and science. Ana feels that she can pinpoint the change to a specific 8th grade science teacher encouraging her to try a science fair project. As a reluctant scientist, she took the project on because she liked and respected her teacher, but did not expect to enjoy the experience. However, in looking back she feels that this experience was where she learned that STEM had many applications beyond robotics and microscopes. This first project is where Ana learned that STEM could connect with many different passions that she was already “into”. She loved to cook with her father and this drove her to build a homemade spectrometer that was used to study the varying grades of olive oil. In this work she learned that there is a great deal of variety in the quality and even some misleading labeling of products as extra-virgin, when they did not hold up to scientific scrutiny.
In finding a way to bring together one of her passions with STEM research, Ana began to explore whether this was possible to do with her passion for the arts. In doing some looking around, she found a Youtube video on origami and started to pursue origami with the unique material called pre-strained polystyrene that makes up Shrinky Dinks. Shrinky Dinks come in 2D sheets that you can draw on and then shrink by exposing them to heat. She found that this was a great way to bring together her passion for art with STEM. Ana commented,
“Since they shrink, you can localize where the shrinking happens so it shrinks in certain places. At the macro level it looks like an origami figure - you can use the folds to allow it to shift from a 2D sheet to a 3D shape. At NCSU, we used this technique to create small robotic hands that can grasp objects.“
Prior to her 8th grade teacher approaching her, Ana had never considered science fairs, but once she got started she felt that the experience opened up a whole world. After her experience in 8th grade, she engaged with many STEM competitions at many levels including, regional, state, and international. Through these experiences she got to meet so many scientists and other students, finding a community of people that she loved and making science fair a major part of her life. She joined science fair groups, loved presenting her work, and igniting other peoples’ passion in STEM.
She found Professional Scientists to be very kind. Noting that her friends were not very interested in hearing about her projects and that having scientists want to know about her project and what inspired her to do it was really special. In addition, the scientists provided tips and insights. Ana also met a lot of students who were able to commercialize their research, sparking a bit of entrepreneurial spirit in her as she saw how this pathway can be leveraged to really help the world.Once Ana got introduced to the world of science fairs, she participated in many types of competition across the years, including the NC Science and Engineering Fair in all years but her 10th grade year.
Her middle school experience, presenting her spectrometer research, brought her to Broadcom Masters where she qualified as a semifinalist. As a semifinalist she was able to meet students at NCSSM who were Broadcom finalists and this introduced her into a larger science fair community.Her 9th grade year she participated in the NC Student Academy of Science Competition where she qualified to participate in the AJAS (American Junior Academy of Science) Conference which is affiliated with and takes place during the national AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) conference convening during her 10th grade year of school. She travelled to Texas and met students from all over and scientists from University of Texas Austin. Her participation made her a lifetime fellow and so during her junior year she raised money to go back, bringing along her Spanish teacher. In bringing her teacher she hoped to bring ideas back to the school to get more students engaged in research and start a club.
As a junior, she participated in Science and Engineering Fairs at the regional, and international level. Drawing on her learning from the 9th grade project she was able to use her knowledge to create robotic grasping devices that could hold up to 24,000 times their weight.
Her project qualified her to attend the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) where she notes that she had “the best week of her life.” At ISEF she got to meet many people interested in science and engineering and continues to keep up with them on a huge group chat. She noted, “My best friend is someone I met at ISEF, we are really close.”In her senior year she was inspired by 3D printing and had quite a few friends from NCSSM who did not have access to the printers. She began exploring how one can leverage the shrinky dink technology to prototype figures in 3D as an alternative to printing. Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 Pandemic she was unable to present this research at the NC Science and Engineering Fair Competition. Additionally during this year, Ana was a participant in the NC International Science Competitions, through the NC Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center (NCSMT), entering her “get a grip” project that made it to ISEF. She was able to present her research to a full panel of judges and won the NCISC Scholar Finalist Award.
Today Ana is a first year engineering student at Columbia University. Due to the pandemic she is engaging in classes online for the semester. While enrolled in engineering, Ana is not sure that professional engineering will be her only path.
“In my senior year at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund conference in November I started to have a change of interest. I met a lot of educators and STEM advocates and my interest was sparked for understanding how to help provide resources to allow equitable access to STEM. Which will shift my research from Engineering to more of an advocacy in STEM for historically underrepresented groups.When I did science it made me feel like I was on the frontier and that is what I imagine it feels like to be an activist. I hope that I am helping people through my volunteer work. I want to find a way to bring together my passion for STEM, Education, and Entrepreneurship for my career. “
When asked to provide you 1 piece of advice for a young person who is interested in Science or Engineering Ana said,
“Definitely add your passion to your STEM research projects. For example, I love arts & crafts and so shrinky dinks were a great way to do that for me. If you love animals, maybe you can do research that integrates that. I have a friend that loves fashion and she did research on hair proteins. This will be motivating.”