Recently named the best high school science student in Indiana, Ujwala Pamidimukkala remembers watching heart surgery documentaries as a young girl in kindergarten. Cardiology captured her interest at a young age, but her pursuit of excellence is also a matter of the heart; her parents left their home in India to bring Ujwala to the U.S. when she was just a few months old, hoping to find the very best for their baby girl. 

“My parents sacrificed a lot for me to be able to come to the U.S. My dad moved himself here, rather than having his company move him,” says Pamidimukkala, who graduated this spring from Columbus North High School. “He wanted me to have a really good education. I want to give back to him, and that’s what’s keeping me motivated to do my best.”

Her drive has led to a long list of academic accolades; most recently, the Governor’s office named Pamidimukkala one of four academic superstars in the state. The 2017 Governor’s STEM Team awards, formerly the Mr./Miss Science and Mr./Miss Math awards, recognize one elite high school student for each subject: science, technology, engineering and math. The Governor’s office says the shift highlights that STEM is “fueling the innovation and entrepreneurship to build our economic future.”

Pamidimukkala’s science teacher throughout high school also finds significance in the fact that a girl earned the highest honor in the state for science students.

“The number of girls versus boys [in science] is steadily improving, but there’s still a vast difference between the number of girls in biological sciences and the number of girls in chemistry and physics,” says Columbus North Science Department Chair Denise Briner-Richardson. “We’ve got a ways to go yet, and I’m pleased Ujwala is helping us get there.”

Pamidimukkala, who notes girls are often a minority in her science classes, is helping bridge the gender gap in chemistry—her favorite branch of science, because “it’s a really nice blend of math and science in one subject.”

“You can just keep going and going with science; it feels like there’s never an end, because there’s always more to learn,” says Pamidimukkala. “I think that’s what makes it challenging. You really have to know your concepts, you can’t just memorize facts. I just appreciate the challenge.”

She enjoys the laboratory work and equation expertise that chemistry demands; she competed in both disciplines as part of the high school’s Science Olympiad team, a nationwide program. Throughout her high school career, Pamidimukkala captured multiple first place titles at the regional level in the chemistry category. The events involve live laboratory competitions in which a panel of judges watches the students’ every move.

“It can get pretty stressful at times,” says Pamidimukkala. “[The lab competitions] were mostly stuff that I already did in my AP chemistry class, but just the pressure of having people watching you as you do it is what makes it difficult. But it brings a competitive spirit to science, and I really enjoyed that.”

Despite the thrill of dominating competitions, Briner-Richardson says Pamidimukkala always had a humble and friendly spirit in the classroom.

“She understood before anybody else did, so when other students had questions, she was so kind in helping them,” says Briner-Richardson. “She wanted her classmates to understand as well as she did, so she did a great job of making sure they got it. She was amazing.”

Pamidimukkala will attend Vanderbilt University, where she plans to double major in chemistry and molecular biology. Her sights are set on medical school, and she ultimately wants to become a cardiovascular surgeon—a path that will likely make her parents proud, encourage other girls to pursue science and maybe even lead to a starring role in a heart surgery documentary of her very own.

ESN President and CEO Paul Mitchell explained how the IAC came to fruition.

Briner-Richardson says Pamidimukkala’s natural chemistry talent shined in the laboratory environment.

Pamidimukkala is hopeful more girls will be encouraged to pursue their passion for science.

Pamidimukkala says she watched surgical documentaries when she was just 6 years old.

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