Meet Our 2018 Grant Winners!

After spending nine days working with experts on our University Workshops at MIT, and National Geographic headquarters, these talented students developed proposals for projects based on their interests and new skills. They were given funding from National Geographic to implement their projects back home and will be working on them throughout the coming year.

Claisom West

Capstone Project: Let’s Bee Friends
Entomology and photography are two of Claisom’s passions, and it frustrates him when insects—which are essential to the planet’s ecosystems—get a bad rap. Claisom wants to challenge this notion and dispel people’s negative perception of insects—in particular, non-honey producing bees—by creating a children’s storybook. After the book is published, he plans to visit elementary schools and share the story with young students, hoping to inspire them to cherish and conserve these critical species.

How did you develop the idea for your grant project?

I was initially very excited about the “Save the Bees” movement, but disappointed to find that their focus was mainly on conserving honey bees—just one out of tens of thousands of bee species. Honey bees are actually doing pretty well, given the millions of dollars they produce for the U.S. honey industry. I wanted to address the importance of non-honey producing bee species, and I realized that educating the next generation would be my best chance of sparking interest in these insects and dispelling the fear that surrounds them.

How did participating in the Washington, D.C. program impact the way you see the world?

The program really gave me a sense of perspective and helped me believe that I could truly make a difference in the world. It showed me that my passion for art and love of science can be combined for the purpose of helping others. I now have a renewed sense of determination to push for change and spread hope.

Where do you hope to be in five years from now?

In five years, I hope to be continuing my education in medical chemistry and entomology. I also want to keep producing children’s books. Eventually, I’d like to pursue a career in botanical pharmacy, unlocking the many mysteries of the insect world and using them to create new, natural medicines that help people.

Julia Whitehorn

Capstone Project: Cook to Conserve
Julia has been a food activist throughout her high school career; she’s organized student groups in the cafeteria and volunteered at soup kitchens. With this project, she plans to combine her passion for food, photography, and the environment by preparing and documenting meals that eliminate waste. Shopping at local farmer’s markets, avoiding packaged food, and choosing seasonal ingredients are just some of the ways Julia aims to demonstrate her brand of sustainable cooking. She’ll also be sharing her recipes on social media and distributing them in markets, stores, and co-ops in her hometown.

How did you develop the idea for your grant project?

I wanted to do something around food, but I also wanted it to be meaningful. After learning about National Geographic’s “Planet or Plastic” initiative, the path was clear: I knew that I wanted to bring together my passion for conserving human health with conserving environmental health.

How did participating in the Washington, D.C. program impact the way you see the world?

In addition to broadening my view of environmental sustainability, the Washington, D.C. program taught me a lot about the importance of telling a story, no matter how big or small. The speakers we heard from demonstrated the value of connecting to a topic and sharing it with others—of arousing curiosity—and that made a great impact on me.

What inspires you?

My biggest inspiration is the power of a person to change someone’s life for the better. This could be something as small as giving a compliment, to serving food to a person who doesn’t know when or where their next meal will be, to examining all the ways doctors, dieticians, and psychiatrists can heal people and reverse medical conditions. These things inspire me because they show that what you do can really make a difference.

Kate Diamond

Capstone Project: Pendants and Programming
An aspiring engineer and competitive programmer, Kate also writes for her high school newspaper and takes an active part in student politics. Her aim is to encourage middle school girls to study STEM; at the workshop she’s organizing, girls will learn how to create pendants out of old circuit boards, coupled with a lesson in Java. Kate believes that projects that combine technology with creativity would make STEM more attractive to young girls.

How did you develop the idea for your grant project?

The idea stemmed from a gift some of my friends and I received at an awards luncheon with the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT): a small pendant crafted from a recycled circuit board. As one of only six girls in the AP Computer Science class at my high school, I am quite aware of the gender imbalance in the STEM fields—that’s what motivated me to find an engaging and creative way to introduce young girls to technology.

How did participating in the Silicon Valley program impact the way you see the world?

The Silicon Valley program reshaped my view of what people around the world are accomplishing using the power of technology. Through our travels in the Bay Area, I found myself most inspired by the small startups we visited; they were working to protect the planet and creating accessible ways to explore and understand the world. I also had the opportunity to work with many amazing students from the global student expeditions community, and it blows my mind that I have a connection to this incredible group of peers.

Why do you think it’s important for high school students to give back to their communities?

Our communities make us who we are. I am fortunate enough to live in an area that has ample opportunities in technology that I have been able to take advantage of, and I feel that putting my skills and drive back into the community will continue to inspire young people to create change in their hometowns. One day, we’ll build up the confidence and skills to change the entire world.

Lauren Kim

Capstone Project: Engineering Workshop for Middle Schoolers
Lauren studies culinary arts and hospitality in high school and has a deep interest in sustainable agriculture. Concerned by the unhealthy lunches served in school cafeterias—a possible contributor to childhood obesity—Lauren plans to develop a climate-controlled vertical garden to provide fresh vegetables to her school’s kitchen. Her aim is to make the system as economical and user friendly as possible, so students in other schools and communities can replicate it on their own.

How did you develop the idea for your grant project?

During my freshman year, I had an opportunity to learn about hydroponic farming. That, tied together with the food computers we were introduced to in the OpenAg lab with Caleb Harper at MIT, motivated me to address a problem that I was facing at my own school: unhealthy lunches.

How did participating in the MIT program impact the way you see the world?

The MIT program showed me that “genius”—moments of brilliance—can come from anywhere. From the smallest of viruses to the Earth’s oceans to even other students, I’ve learned to keep my eyes open to every opportunity and source of inspiration.

Where do you hope to be five years from now?

I hope to be studying biology or another related field, and in the much more distant future, I hope to work at NASA on the Mars missions. As a society, I think it’s important to keep exploring and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge because historically, once a civilization no longer prioritizes exploration, it collapses.

Mehek Jethani

Capstone Project: Food Computer for an Educational Agriculture Club
Mehek’s many interests range from robotics and computer programming to graphic design and playing the violin. Her project is all about educating students in the ways engineering and technology can be applied to agriculture. Mehek hopes that the project—a weekly club focused on building a contained garden with a variety of controls and sensors—will excite her peers to the possibilities of working in agriculture at a time when issues of food security and sustainable farming are more pertinent than ever.

How did you develop the idea for your grant project?

My idea for the project came about during the MIT program. Like many of the students at my school, I never thought about agriculture as a potential career because I was so focused on other applications of engineering and computer science. However, seeing the work that’s being done today through agriculture-related technology—vertical farms and the MIT Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative, for example—I realized that not only is farming a viable career for engineers, but engineers are actually needed to help solve the growing food crisis. I hope that can help other students see this too.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by the people around me. I think everyone has something to share that I can learn from, and though there are many things that I may never experience in my lifetime, I can gain new perspectives of the world just by trying to see through the eyes of another person.

Why do you think it’s important for high school students to give back to their communities?
I think it’s important for high schoolers to give back to their communities—above anyone else— because we make up 100% of the future. How we choose to influence our communities now will not only influence us in the future, but those who come after us.

Zoe Curran

Capstone Project: The Faces of California
Hailing from the agricultural town of Nipomo, California—immortalized by Dorothea Lange’s iconic photographs of farm workers—Zoe is passionate about writing, photography, and community service. Partly inspired by Dorothea Lange, Zoe plans to document the lives and stories of California farm workers through a series of photographs and interviews. She’ll then display the photographs at local businesses to help raise awareness about the hardships the farm workers—both full-time and migrant—continue to face.

How did you develop the idea for your grant project?

I tried to take a critical look at my community and identify the voices that weren’t being heard. While brainstorming, I pulled from my experiences as a student mentor at Dorothea Lange elementary school, which got me thinking about Dorothea’s historic photography. I remember driving past the places she photographed–rural, agricultural areas of California with vast swaths of farmland—and seeing people working underneath large canopies on extremely hot days. That visual stuck in my head and later came back to me as I was developing the idea for this project.

How did participating in the Washington, D.C. program impact the way you see the world?

Participating in the Washington, D.C. program helped me gain insights into the connections between journalism, environmentalism, and community. In addition, the opportunity to meet with students from around the country who shared my interests in advocacy and journalism was simply amazing.

Where do you hope to be five years from now?

I hope to have graduated with a double major in psychology and English and be engaged in an internship or career which utilizes those skills. In the future, I also wish to travel more, live in different cities, and meet new people.