Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Jessica Li  (Class of 2015)
High School Junior, Summit, New Jersey
24 May 2014
[6,592-word paper on Kang Youwei
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize 2014]

[I asked her about some of her experiences with math and history. Will Fitzhugh]

My interest and involvement in mathematics was inspired by my family and my own exploration. My family instilled in me a strong love of learning in general but especially of mathematics. In elementary and early middle school, I mostly participated in various smaller math contests, practiced contest and advanced math on my own, and took higher-level math classes in school. In late middle school and high school, I first began to see the true beauty of mathematics when I began reading pure and applied math research papers written by graduate students and professors. At first, these papers were, of course, very difficult to understand. But gradually, through persistence and great effort, I began to understand them more and enjoy reading them more.

Before high school, especially in early middle school, my parents had provided more assistance in extracurricular academic pursuits, specifically giving me suggestions about what programs I should look into, what books I might want to read based on my interests, helping me through some challenging problems, etc. Around the beginning of high school, my involvement in mathematics became more independent of my family. They certainly supported me in everything I did, but I began to find my own route and chart my own path. Through participating in summer programs, contests, and online courses I found, I built a network of like-minded peers who shared more information with me about other math-related opportunities. Specifically, in summer 2012, I attended AwesomeMath Summer Program where I met International Math Olympiad participants, medalists, and coaches as well as many other talented young mathematicians.

In summer 2013, I attended the Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics, a six-week math research program with interesting seminars and courses on a variety of different topics including 4D geometry, theoretical computer science, complex analysis, algebraic topology, set theory, graph theory, group theory, and more. For several years, I have participated in the American Mathematics Competition, American Invitational Mathematics Exam, the United States Mathematical Talent Search (where I received a Gold medal), and Math Madness (where I was in the top four in the country). I have written for Girls' Angle Bulletin, the journal of Girls' Angle. I recently conducted my own research and placed in the top three of my category and won a special computing award at the North Jersey Regional Science Fair and was published in the Journal of Applied Mathematics and Physics. Earlier this year, I was accepted to the MIT PRIMES-USA program, a year-round research program with MIT. Only thirteen students in the nation were accepted this year. Last week, I presented my research at the MIT PRIMES Conference.

I try my best not to take all of these wonderful mathematical opportunities for granted. I realize that many other students of all ages do not have the same opportunities as I do to explore mathematics. I have created programs for underprivileged students to learn contest mathematics and showcase their abilities.

In my school, I have worked to involve more girls in mathematics and get more girls interested in the subject through making presentations, suggesting programs, organizing contests and research courses, leading the Mu Alpha Theta research team, giving project ideas and research guidance, sharing posters and math games, etc. This summer, I will be traveling to different states to present at local schools about snowflake and virus symmetries, a main focus of my MIT PRIMES-USA project. The puzzles I designed and 3D-printed to share information about snowflake and virus symmetries will be featured in the Museum of Mathematics in New York City and hopefully other museums as well. My MIT PRIMES-USA project was featured at the Undergraduate Research Symposium at the Illini Union and in a presentation to the head of the Illinois Geometry Lab. My school, specifically the entire mathematics and science departments, honored me with the Rensselaer Medal for Mathematics and Science for my mathematics and science accomplishments in contests, research success, and for involving other students in math.

I have also used my mathematical knowledge and abilities in my other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities. I have used statistical analysis in my environmental engineering projects on microbial fuel cells, cellulosic ethanol, and invasive species control. I also used the leadership skills I gained from getting more people, especially underprivileged students and girls, interested in mathematics to involve students worldwide in environmental engineering and research through a nonprofit organization I founded.

Though I have not used much math in computer science, my interest in math led me to study Java, Matlab, and C/C++ on my own. I have created a number of apps to help clean-water charities and the blind.

My typical family vacation has always been centered around museums. For as long as I can remember, I have loved visiting museums, reading the books about the museum exhibits and artifacts before and after the visit, listening to the tour guides, doing my own research on related topics, etc. I did not, however, conduct my own historical research and write a paper on my research until tenth grade. In my history 10 course, each student was required to write a research paper on a topic of their choice based on a relevant book. I had always been interested in Chinese history, because of its close connection to my family history and my roots. So, I read The Chinese in America by Iris Chang, an author who I was already familiar with after reading The Rape of Nanking. My paper focused on a comparison of the challenges faced by Chinese immigrants in mainland China and in America during the mid 20th century. I loved completing the project. Even though I was only required to write a four-page paper, I wrote twenty pages including a poem from the point of a view of a Chinese immigrant. I also used my computer science skills to create a game that teaches others about the information I learned from my research.

In the middle of tenth grade, I heard about The Concord Review through a friend who knew about my interests and abilities in history and suggested that I may be interested in submitting a research paper to the journal. I was very interested in taking on the challenge to improve my reading, writing, and research skills and to share my work with high school history students, teachers, and other historians. I had some difficulty deciding upon a topic to research.

Around this time in my history 10 class we were learning about the Opium War. After some thought, I decided to complete my research paper on Chinese modernization. I was fascinated by the progress China had made in terms of modernization in the last century and was interested in investigating further. I wanted to shed light on this topic that is not so well known to high school students and others. Before beginning my research paper when I asked teachers, other adults, and friends for advice, they all emphasized the importance of reading other history research papers on similar topics.

Not only would I learn more information relevant to my topic of choice but I would also be more familiar with the style of academic writing featured in high-level, very well-respected journals such as The Concord Review, which is unique at the secondary level. I spent the winter and spring of tenth grade in the library, reading dozens of books and papers on Chinese modernization. In the early spring, I finalized my topic—the rise and fall of Kang Youwei, a prominent reformer in the late Qing Dynasty who is little known, yet had a tremendous influence on Chinese modernization. For the rest of the spring, I focused on reading literature specifically about Kang and those movements and figures related to him and his effects.

I began writing my paper in the beginning of the summer and focused on editing and rewriting for the remainder of the summer. My history 10 teacher found time in her summer to help edit my paper and provide helpful suggestions for improving it. Finally, in August, I was ready to submit my (6,592-word) final paper to The Concord Review. My paper was accepted for publication later in the Winter 2013 issue. I was so excited and honored to be able to share my work with The Concord Review subscribers and others worldwide.

Even though I am not working on a new history project right now, I have continued pursuing my interest in history through reading papers and books and completed a shorter project this year on mental hospitals. I look forward to continuing my history studies and research in college and beyond. Before conducting my own history research, and writing history research papers, I never thought I would continue to study history after high school because I had always thought my main interest would be in math and engineering. But now, I realize the value of history research and academic writing in any career and life path I choose, and also simply to satisfy my curiosity about the past, the present, and the future.

“I am simply one who loves the past and is diligent in investigating it.”

K’ung-fu-tzu (551-479 BC) The Analects

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