By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Ana Humphrey’s going to cure cancer someday — or do something equally important.
The 17-year-old T.C. Williams High School junior was one of Virginia’s Outstanding STEM award recipients for 2018. Gov. Ralph Northam presented Humphrey with the STEM Phenom Award at a ceremony in Richmond on March 1.
This is the 33rd year the awards ceremony has recognized Virginians at different stages in their careers, from students to experts, for scientific contributions in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
“I felt incredibly honored,” Humphrey said. “I had definitely not expected that, but it’s always, you know, it’s always amazing to get recognized for work that you’ve done, especially when it’s something that you care so much about.”
Humphrey was chosen for this year’s award because of her work getting younger students interested in the STEM fields and involved in their communities.
One of her greatest accomplishments for young people in Northern Virginia is a program called Watershed Warriors. What began as a class project when Humphrey was in seventh grade has since become a nonprofit organization.
Through the program, high school students pair with local fifth graders to promote environmental awareness with hands-on experiments in community wetlands. The high schoolers act as teachers and organize, plan and execute the experiments themselves.
Humphrey said the program aims to apply Virginia’s Standards of Learning to real world scenarios.
“Students often don’t really understand the context of what they’re learning and why it’s important,” Humphrey said. “When you can tie the standards, the things that they’re learning in class, with things that are relevant to them in their daily lives, it makes the science come alive.”
Watershed Warriors has engaged more than 475 students from mostly low-income communities throughout the region since its onset in 2014, according to the Outstanding STEM press release.
While Humphrey was the youngest person to be honored at the Outstanding STEM ceremony, her experience in the STEM fields is far from elementary. In addition to Watershed Warriors, the award highlighted two other science projects Humphrey has been working on for years – an app that monitors E. coli colonies in water supplies and an astronomy research project focusing on exoplanets.
Humphrey’s mother, Luisa Tio, said her daughter’s success stemmed from a combination of natural ability and a passion for learning.
“You know in the first Harry Potter movie when he’s taking that first class in flying?” Tio said. “… That’s how I feel about Ana with math. Something that’s really hard for normal people just doesn’t seem to be too hard for her.”
In addition to her talent in math, Humphrey has won several science fairs and attended conferences throughout the country, including the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the largest pre-college science competition in the world. Humphrey qualified for Intel ISEF again this year and will represent Northern Virginia at the fair in May.
“I really started enjoying science fairs and the process of creating a project and learning really in depth about a particular topic,” Humphrey said. “It was just the thing I wanted to do. I wanted to go home and do my problem sets. I wanted to go home and work on my science fair project.”
Humphrey said it was her seventh grade life science class that first introduced her to the possibilities of STEM.
“We learned how to study the issues in our community and create action plans that would solve those issues,” Humphrey said. “It was then that I first realized that STEM and science really had a power to create change.”
Humphrey’s teacher, Mary Breslin, said she recognized the full extent of Humphrey’s passion while working on Caring for Our Watersheds, the project that eventually blossomed into Watershed Warriors.
Through the project, students develop solutions for local watershed problems by calling and interviewing experts and community members. Breslin said one of the project’s goals is to help students develop their “youth voices.”
“Seventh grade is just kind of the perfect year to have this curriculum and to be able to teach kids about their youth voice,” Breslin said. “If I can catch them by the time they get to be 12 years old, then I can teach them that they can be part of the real world solution.”
Breslin said Humphrey excelled in developing her youth voice, as she was able to easily and professionally communicate with adults and experts in STEM fields.
“What I really realized about Ana was how capable she was in being able to talk to people in the community,” Breslin said. “Once she realized that she could work in the real world, and that her learning was real, and she was gonna make a real difference, that’s where she really took off.”
Breslin said she hadn’t realized that Humphrey and her classmates had expanded Caring for Our Watersheds to Watershed Warriors until about a year later.
“She’s so independent that she took a project that she did with me, sort of managing it and managing the students that she worked with in my class … and they started doing this on their own,” Breslin said.
The seventh grade project sparked Humphrey’s career in STEM.
She presented her computer app, ColiFind, at a national science fair last year. She said she created the project to reconcile two categories of bacteria monitoring methods.
“Tests tend to fall into two categories,” Humphrey said. “They’re either very accurate but also very expensive and hard to perform, requiring labs and trained personnel, or they’re very easy to perform and they’re inexpensive … but they often compromise accuracy in one way or another.”
Humphrey’s project, which pulls together an inexpensive, simple to perform and accurate test to identify waterborne bacteria, earned first place at the competition.
While Watershed Warriors and ColiFind focus on the world’s microorganisms, Humphrey’s latest project expands beyond our solar system with the study of exoplanets.
“It’s a little bit different from my other two projects but … learning about exoplanets, it’s really helping us to get an understanding of not only how the universe works, how a solar system works, but also our own history and why our solar system looks the way it does,” Humphrey said. “I really feel that that research can help tell our story on a larger scale.”
As she does her junior year college search, Humphrey said she’s looking into colleges that will allow her to continue in the STEM fields and possibly major in physics.
“As you can see, I’ve got these two loves – I’ve got a love of astrophysics, and I’ve got a love of environmental science, so time will tell which side of the needle I come down on,” Humphrey said.
Breslin said Humphrey’s “unpretentious personality,” paired with her intelligence, is something she’s never come across before in a student.
“There’s a lot of students that have her capability as far as intelligence and out of the box thinking, but honestly, I’ve never had a student that is quite as humble as her,” Breslin said. “Her parents raised her in a way that they taught her that being smart is great, but that’s not the most important thing. Being kind and respectful is more important.”
Tio described her daughter as intense toward her subjects and caring toward her family.
“She’s not just like sort of off by herself being this heavy, serious [researcher],” Tio said. “She’s always looking for ways to help people, too. She’s really just such a good kid.”
When asked where she sees herself in 10 years, Humphrey said whatever field she’s in, she wants to continue asking new questions and figuring out the best way to answer them.
“I hope that wherever I am, that I will be learning things that nobody knows yet, and I will be making new things that help change how we experience life on a daily basis, help make the world a little bit better,” she said.