Melissa Chan

melissa_chanMelissa Chan, 17, is a senior at William G. Enloe High School. Last summer, she conducted research under Dr. Melissa A. Pasquinelli of the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry, and Science at the North Carolina State University through the NC Project SEED Program. With this research, she has won honors at the Sigma Xi National Student Poster Competition and North Carolina American Chemical Society. She was also named a semi-finalist for the Intel Science Talent Search. Outside of the lab, she is a board member and coach of her school’s Science Olympiad team, member of Medical Bioscience Academy and National Honor Society. She is also the founder and organizer of the Kids-Helping-Kids Benefit Concert Series which raises funds for charities such as UNICEF. In her free time, Melissa enjoys playing piano, playing tennis, swimming, and photography.

Melissa’s updates from Beijing:

Sunday, March 27, 2011
Since we’re finished with the poster presentations, today is the day for fun! We woke up and had breakfast, then left for the awards and closing ceremony at Dayu High School. The closing ceremony wasn’t performance-studded like last night’s; instead, people were given actual awards. Interestingly, all of the international students were given first-place prizes. While I’m honored to receive a big shiny medal, it didn’t feel right to be given such an award by default. I noticed that there were many students awarded for both first and second prizes, with at least seventy people per place. It’s different than the American system where in each category, such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Computer Science, etc., there are first, second, and third place winners. In this competition, they seemed to do it by a tier system, where the great ones were given first prize and the good ones were given second prizes. While I like the American system more, I can see why they did it. In America, the research projects that we conduct are often very specific, at a depth that requires university-grade instruments and knowledge. In China, the level of research varies wildly. There were those who were given the same privileges as we were: access to laboratory instruments, mentors, professors, scientific journals, etc.. Then there were those living in small villages with absolutely no access to laboratories or higher level education materials. This lead to projects that have very scientifically rigorous focuses such as cures to diabetes to more home-grown projects such as a chimney cover to prevent moisture while retaining heat. It’s not to say that those who did home-grown projects didn’t display creativity or ingenuity, but they are automatically placed at a huge disadvantage. Awarding huge amounts of people first and second place allowed judges to assess how innovative each project with consideration of the funding and training these students received.

Well, the closing ceremony was populated with a bunch of speeches. The language is very formal and flowery, so I could only pick out the main ideas. After the ceremony, we went back to our posters to take pictures with other countries before we took them down. Afterwards, we had lunch, which was again, super delicious. Then, we returned to the hotel to dress warmly for the Great Wall. We took an hour long bus ride to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Time passed by quite quickly as the Australians (Yup, the Aussies again) invented a game that required us to create the longest continuous strip of paper our of a candy wrapper (they refer to candies as lollies, LOL.) I was a close third. Aaron did a pretty amazing job even though he messed up in the beginning. In the end, it was an Australian who won.

Then, we arrived at the Great Wall. I expected it to be freezing cold. It was pleasantly warm. We started the climb of the Great Wall feeling energetic. That quickly changed after 30 minutes. The wall was so steep and so difficult to climb. I was so out of breath (one could argue out of shape) by the time we got to the first tower. There were four more to go. Somehow, we managed to make it to the top, and we took a lot of pictures to prove it to the world. Angela did a really cool ballet pose. Jenifer looked cool in her sunglasses. Ryan did a martial arts pose. I didn’t do much; I was just glad to have made it to the top. We also attempted a jumping picture which proved to be risky because it involved us taking off our purses and backpacks and placing it on the ground where random strangers could steal. Luckily, we succeeded and retained all of our possessions.

When we got back down, I had a refreshing can of tea. Yes, a can of tea. After we rested up, we went back onto the bus where most people fell asleep. I couldn’t fall asleep, so I asked Ryan to teach me how to make an origami rose, which he had taught to Angela on the trip to the wall. I thought origami was supposed to be easy, but this rose was quite challenging. In the end, I made a rose which I stuck on top of Tom, an Australian who was sleeping, and took a picture.

We had supper. After supper, I took out my tripod and took some pictures of my fellow NCSSM peeps. The Australians invited us to dress up and go bowling (by dress up, I mean dress as ridiculously as possible). Angela, Ryan, and I decided to stay in our hotel rooms and do homework while Jenifer decided to join the party.
Random Note: I learned from Ryan today that apparently A4 and letter sized paper are different. MLIAL (My Life is a Lie).
Second Random Note: I decided to take some pictures of the hotel since the lighting was so beautiful.

Saturday, March 26, 2011
We woke up feeling groggy. We slept at 12:31 because we stayed up late learning Three Kingdoms.

Yup, shouldn’t have stayed up late.

We ate breakfast. I was barely awake. I don’t remember what I ate.

We got to Dayu High School to display our projects. I only had one judge, but he knew exactly what I was talking about, so that was exciting. Even in the United States, not all judges really knew what I was talking about. I gave him my card. As the day went on, the number of cameras increased. After a while, I stopped noticing them. There were many students who came to my booth.

After hearing my translator Lucy explain my project to them a couple of times, I decided to try my luck and explain it to them in Chinese. However, before I continue on, I would like to make a reference to Angela’s blog:

Unlike Angela and Ryan, I wasn’t asked if I was of Chinese descent. I didn’t meet anyone who asked if I considered myself American or Chinese. There were probably two factors that made our experiences differ:

1) I introduced myself before presenting as a representative from the United States, and apologized for my Chinese. Everyone always respond by saying that wasn’t true at all. Whether it’s because of my effort to communicate in their native tongue or courtesy, I didn’t feel that they were disappointed in my broken Chinese.

2) Both my accent and my last name indicated that I was Cantonese, which gave me sort of an excuse for not being fluent in Mandarin.

Angela’s experiences with the woman raises an interesting point. I’m sure that many ABC’s struggle with the concept of identity, though it has become easier throughout the generations since both cultures have become more open and understanding of each other. As an American in China, I was treated with the highest regard on this trip. Students were so interested in everything that we do, and ask us about things like education, food, culture, religion, TV shows, even Lady Gaga, and etc. As a Chinese in America, I am also very well respected. I often find myself in the center of attention because others wanted to know more about Chinese culture, how to greet people in Chinese, etc. I mentioned in a college application earlier that a huge gap of communication exists between the cultures. After this trip, I’m pleased to say that the gap isn’t as vast as I originally thought. I can tell that the Chinese are really making an effort to close the gap, this entire international competition being part of this effort. This has been an eye-opening experience, and I’m really glad to have taken part in it.

Going back to the poster presentation, I was also amazed by the level of interest in the Chinese students. There was one boy that I remember particularly. He asked me to explain him the project, which I did in Chinese. Then, he stood there silently reading my English poster for the next 15 minutes silently as I spoke with other students. You may not know this, but my poster is a difficult read; it’s not coffee table type material. When everyone left, he asked me a question. I gave him a satisfactory answer, so he left. Half an hour later, he came back. He asked me two more questions. I gave him two answers. Ten minutes later, he came back again! He apologized profusely for “bothering” me, but I couldn’t be happier. I’ve never had someone come back to my poster. He was genuinely interested and was thinking about it even when away from my poster. That’s pretty cool.

Then, lunch time. After we ate, we decided to go to their athletic fields and relax. Australia (It’s always the Australians) initiated an Aussie Rugby game. Afterwards, they challenged everyone to a basketball game. I didn’t know how to play rugby, but I did kick the rugby ball once, which was exciting. However, I can’t say my rugby skills are any better than my bowling skills. When we sat down on the fake grass (presumably for easy maintenance), Aaron asked if we wanted to learn winter boxing. We thought it would be pretty cool, so we took up his offer. It was. The point of winter boxing is to hit the enemy before he strikes you. The fastest way to accomplish that would be to face your opponent and hit him in the center, as it is the shortest distance. Aaron showed us the basic steps and moves, which we tried to copy. He taught us around ten moves, but I think I only managed to learn two. When it was time to go back, we traveled across the court to go back to the exhibition hall. As we were walking, we saw this guy in a suit lying on the fake grass, fast asleep. The Australians went over to make sure he was breathing. Once they established his living status, they proceeded to crowd around him and have their pictures taken while doing crazy poses around the sleeping guy. After the photo op, we left to present our posters.

After presenting our posters for a couple hours, Ryan and I decided to go around the Chinese section of the exhibit and look at other posters while our faithful translator Lucy guarded our posters and explained it to people who came by. We had already glanced at most of the engineering ones when we were setting up posters, so we looked at the biology, biochemistry, and chemistry ones this time. Even though English wasn’t the Chinese students’ native language, most of them still prepared an English version of their presentation even though international students only accounted for maybe one-tenth of the students presenting, and practically zero percent of the general public which accounts for most of the people who visit posters. They really made an effort to make sure we understood. One guy prepared an English verbal presentation (It was really well written, by the way) on his phone so that he could read off the points while demonstrating by pointing at his Chinese poster. Another guy had a Word document with all the English translation of his poster along with his pictures. There was a girl who explained her project without any help except for a digital dictionary that she used occasionally. Then, there was a guy who did it in very fluent English with no help at all. Overall, I was really impressed by their English capabilities and their efforts to cater to the international students.

After wandering for a while, Ryan and I were joined by Alexo, the Mandarin Chinese-Italian translator, who quickly became our Cantonese Chinese-Mandarin Chinese translator. Both Ryan and I can speak Cantonese fluently, so it worked out really well. We visited a girl who designed a chimney and another who designed a system that alerts driver when they become sleepy.

Then, we went back to the international section and visited other countries’ presentations. I saw one by Denmark on bacteria that produces electricity in sludge, one by Japan investigating Uranium in a local mine, one by Korea on incubating chicken eggs, and one by Ukraine on predicting diseases with chemical analysis of the air we breathe out. By then, everyone was really tired of talking about their posters, so we just decided it was time to have fun. Aaron taught us more winter boxing, and a couple cameramen filmed our exchange. (Ahh, just when you thought they’ve left, huh? Don’t forget, they’re everywhere.) We talked with the surrounding international presenters. After the poster session ended, we had our pictures taken. There were so many cameras.

Then, we ate dinner. Dinner was good as usual.

Oh, after thought: Throughout our bus rides, we decided to start a game where we write a poem collectively about our experiences. Everyone would contribute a line, and the poem would have an abab rhyming scheme. This was based on the 3 word story idea, but we wanted to make it slightly more challenging. If we manage to write a decent poem, then we shall publish it on the web.

After dinner, we went to the closing ceremony. Again, it was a huge event. This time, it included dance and music performances. There was a girl who did a hybrid of Chinese poetry and rapping, which I thought was pretty interesting. The event was really formal, and we were invited to the stage to accept gifts. We received really exquisite wheat grass patchwork. I look forward to hanging it up in my room.

Friday, March 25, 2011
We went to breakfast and had a delicious breakfast. I decided to stick to the kiwi juice because it tasted the best in room temperature. We decided to live life on the edge and sit on the opposite side of the restaurant as we usually sit. There was a great view, though the blinding sun made it difficult to see. I think we’ll go back to the safe side tomorrow.

After breakfast, we left to go to Dayu High School. Unlike the previous day where we were escorted to the gym for the posters, we were escorted into a conference room with Chinese students. We were then given a presentation of Dayu High School, which is a very prestigious school in Beijing. Unlike the schools in the United States, the students there take 5 classes in the morning, 4 classes in the afternoon, and 3 classes at night, totaling 12 classes per day. It’s a partly residential high school; those who choose to live there can. I thought that they must sleep very late, but it turns out that the electricity cuts off at 10 pm, which effectively becomes their bed time. I have no clue how they manage this, but somehow they do. Another thing that I learned was that all the girls are required to have the same haircut. I’ve never seen other schools do that before. It might be just Dayu High School.Then, we were led to their lecture hall for an opening ceremony. Lecture hall was a misnomer. It was a huge concert hall with colorful bright shining stage lights everywhere. As I stepped in, I heard Chinese modern music blasting in the background. It was pretty amazing. As sad as it may be, that opening ceremony was as close to an Asian music concert as I’ve been to in my life. The students handed us LED light clappers for all the foreign students. I looked around, big named scientists and government officials sat in the front row. I looked to the sides of the hall, and hordes of cameras were pointing at every imaginable angle. Sorry for the lack of a better word, but the entire event was just pro. The way they treat this competition so seriously made me wonder why science “nerds” are so often looked down upon in American schools. The juxtaposition of how scientists are treated in the two countries made me a little sad. So often in the states, students are discouraged from scientific fields through either peer pressure or lack of interest. In China, science competitions aren’t just competitions, but national television type events. This is the type of thing that little kids at home watch on the news and dream of participating in. I really wish the same was true in the United States.

Putting that aside, we then had supper. It was pretty good.

After supper, we went back to our rooms to do homework and such. Aaron came by our room to teach us a popular Chinese card game called San Guo Sha, or Three Kingdoms. It was very complicated to learn, but we tried.

Thursday, March 24, 2011
We woke up this morning feeling refreshed and headed down to breakfast. The food they served was a mix of Chinese and Western food. I was quite surprised when I saw hashbrowns being served at the buffet. They called it “potato cakes”, which in my opinion, is a much more accurate description of the food, and it was absolutely delicious. The drink selection they offered was really interesting. We saw kiwi juice, hawthorn juice, milk, soymilk, and tea. Interestingly, none of the drinks were served cold, even if they would taste much better when served cold (Lee et al. 2011), which echoes the belief of the Chinese that we should drink liquids that are room temperature or hot to preserve our health.

After breakfast, we headed out to the Jietai Temple. Since the Jietai temple is very high in altitude, we were able to catch a birds-eye view of the city as we were travelling up. From the top, it’s clear that huge amounts of land in Beijing are going through construction. However, unlike how it is in the states, there were quite a few physical laborers who worked in these areas. We saw this enormous expanse of land that was hollowed out for a new water project. The scale of it is so huge that I’m not even sure what to compare it to. Once we got to the top of the mountain, we all filed out of the two buses. First impression? It was cold. The temple was gorgeous, but man, it was cold. Our group hiked up the stone-paved path to the entrance and first temple. As soon as we stepped over the door (I say over because it was a ledge that extended around 10 cm from the ground that we had to step over. It’s a common thing with ancient Chinese architecture), we saw two huge statues that looked really intimidating. I turned to the tour guide and all I could catch were the Chinese words “__”, or safety. I turned to Angela, who was our only native Mandarin speaker; she looked just as clueless as I was. I turned to Ryan, who was a fellow Cantonese speaker; he looked clueless as well. Aaron, one of the Chinese college students who accompanied us, smiled once he realized how completely and utterly lost we were, and proceeded to explain to us that the two statues were the guards of the temple. They were responsible for keeping the temple safe.

In the next temple, we saw four more intimidating statues, but this time, they were holding different items. As we stared blankly at the Chinese-speaking tour guide trying to catch a few words that we recognized, the two college students Aaron and Lucy listened intently and jotting down notes so that they could translate and teach our entire delegation. Aaron explained to us that the four statues were holding the four primary weapons: umbrella, snake, musical instrument, and sword. The sword and snake were self-explanatory, but the umbrella and musical instrument was a little out there. It turns out that Chinese believed that when closed, the umbrella can be used to capture bad guys and absolve their evilness… (Pardon the awkward use of diction, I’m writing this at 5 am because I’m still not used to the time change). The musical instrument was like a tranquilizer/hypnotizer. When played, it lulled people to sleep. We continued the tour and saw many interesting things, such as a temple hugging tree, intricate wooden carvings of dragons, a pair of trees named “Dragon” an d “Pheonix” based on the roughness of the bark, hundred year old peonies, a leaning tree, and last but not least, a TV cameraman. I think every international student made it a goal to stalk the cameraman, hunt the hunter. I mean, how often do you have TV crews with actual cameras film you? I felt like a rockstar J. Well okay, let me stop obsessing over myself for a moment.

We met many students from South Korea, Denmark, and Australia while touring the temple. They were really nice. The Denmark students challenged us to a bowling tournament. More on that later.

We came back to eat lunch, and then proceeded to get on the bus to Dayu High School. On the bus ride over, we taught some Australian students how to play the word game “Contact”. Dayu High School didn’t look like the typical high school. It was huge, really huge. After I set up my poster, one of the BAST officers along with a huge camera crew came and visited my booth. He asked me to explain my project. It would have been fine if I had my translator Lucy with me, but she was gone for the day. Like a child, I pointed at the words that I couldn’t pronounce in Chinese such as carbon nanotubes and polyacrylonitrile and stringed words from my limited Chinese vocabulary. Needless to say, I struggled. Fortunately, Aaron came to my rescue. Even though he had never seen or read my project before, he was able to seamlessly pick up where I left off in Chinese and translate the rest of my presentation on the spot. He was absolutely amazing. He remained calm and professional despite the pressure and was able to translate my English and piece together my rough Chinese within seconds.

After the poster setup, we went back to the hotel to accept Denmark’s challenge for bowling. It was a lot of fun. I bowled a 49. I know 49 is rather pathetic, but it’s my first time playing. Lena and Noah from Italy taught me how to say good luck and good job in Italy while we were playing, which I’m sure it’ll come in handy in the near future.