Garrison Forest Senior Becomes Science Superstar

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K Paseman
Photo courtesy of Anna Schaefer, Garrison Forest, ’14.

While other little kids spent their weekends watching cartoons, Garrison Forest senior Katherine Paseman focused on designing a balsa wood bridge as part of Destination Imagination’s bridge-making competition. She and her fellow teammates placed third—in the globe.

Fast forward about nine years to find Paseman entrenched in another contest measuring young people’s creativity and genius, the Intel Science Talent Search. In this, the most prestigious science research competition in the nation for high school seniors, Paseman was named one of only 21 semi-finalists from Maryland; in all, 1,794 applicants entered the competition. Her project? “A New Model Relating Hemoglobin, Hematocrit, and Optical Density.”

“In order for the device to work, we need a mathematical model of how light interacts with whole blood. We create one by extending existing equation-based models using intuitions from 3D geometry,” Paseman said.

Huh?

Super-teens—those whose achievements reveal an extreme level of intelligence, focus, and perseverance—always make me scratch my head in wonder. Paseman is one of those head-scratching sorts of young women. When she started explaining her research project to me, she spit out the words hemoglobin and hematocrit so fast I had to ask her to slow down. From what I eventually was able to gather, Paseman is developing a special type of hemometer (a device used to measures a blood’s hemoglobin, a protein that offers clues to many medical conditions) by using light, instead of drawing blood. Don’t ask me how.

I may not fully understand how Paseman envisions analyzing patient’s blood by shining light on their skin as opposed to pricking it with a needle. But beyond this incredibly cutting-edge diagnostic methodology that Paseman is developing—the seed of which was planted in her as a young girl when her mother experienced repeated dizzy spells that turned out to be due to low hemoglobin levels, and which she continued to cultivate most recently as she traveled to India in December 2013 with Hopkins engineering researchers to test several models of non-invasive blood analysis—what I really wanted to know was this: How does a seemingly ordinary girl like Paseman, who loves to dance and sing and is prone to giggling, possess such profound intellectual curiosity, when so many girls today continue to underperform in science and math and to enter STEM (science technology engineering math) fields at a depressingly low rate, especially compared to their male peers?

As I probed Paseman about her background, I began to grasp how she has become the confident young budding scientist she is today. Parents of young girls, you may want to lean in.

It all began with natural curiosity and compassion. “I was confused and scared” Paseman confided, when her mother felt dizzy all the time. She didn’t like the fact that her mother had to wait almost a week to learn the results of a blood test. Paseman’s research may one day enable patients like her mother to receive instantaneous diagnoses based on their blood work. The same could be true for patients in remote and impoverished parts of the world such as India where, as Paseman learned when she was there, making multiple trips back and forth to a health clinic to receive a diagnosis simply is not feasible.

Add to this mix of curiosity and compassion a mind that’s open to science, unlike those of so many girls her age. “I just love physics,” Paseman announced in the same sing-song voice that another girl her age might use to describe a crush. Paseman actually seems disappointed that so few girls share her passion for science. “STEM gets a bad rap a lot of the time,” she said. Many students, she believes, simply don’t see its creative side.

In defense of STEM subjects’ creativity, Paseman uses the simple example that there are many different ways to find the volume of a cylinder. Unfortunately, she opines, students do not necessarily begin to appreciate the flexibility inherent to math and science subjects until they reach higher level classes in high school. And too often, students never get that far.

Having an appreciation of STEM is one thing. Taking that next step—using it to solve problems as Paseman has done—is another. But for her, it was a natural progression. She was raised in a culture where innovation was respected, even expected.

“Having grown up in Silicon Valley, I was immersed in a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism,” Paseman said. Her parents, both engineers, started their own company. So did plenty of other people whom Paseman knew. It’s no wonder, then, that she sees herself as a budding STEM entrepreneur.

It certainly helps, too, that her school offers a program that has allowed Paseman to channel her interests. “Through the WISE program, I was able to network my way into the Hopkins [research] program,” Paseman said.

As a result of Garrison Forest’s nine-year-old WISE program, about 130 of the school’s students have been mentored in STEM pursuits by dozens of faculty members at Johns Hopkins. Paseman never would have found her way to India on a research project as a rising high school senior had it not been for the connections she made through the WISE program.

But long before Paseman began her search for a high school on the east coast where she could board (a necessity, as her parents’ business travel schedule escalated) and be challenged by a stimulating STEM program, she possessed a strong foundation of support that fed her curious mind.

“My dad would always take the time to answer my questions. I remember him saying sometimes: ‘I don’t know the answer, but we can find out together,’” Paseman said.

Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore Fishbowl contributor and local freelance writer.

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