The annual Hoosier tradition of the Governor’s office naming a Mr. and Miss Indiana Science has an unusual twist this year: both students hail from the same high school. 2015 Mr. Science Adit Chandra and 2015 Miss Science Helena Ma both graduated this spring from Carmel High School. While they competed on the same extracurricular science teams and had some of the same science teachers, both say their love for the subject started long before high school.
Chandra recalls buying a children’s circuit kit when he was in first grade; he remembers the flashing light fascinated him and sparked an interest in how things work. His curiosity attracted Chandra to science, and when one of his elementary school teachers stoked his inquisitiveness, he says he was hooked.
“I had a great teacher named Mr. Farmer. He told me one day, ‘you’re not asking enough questions,’” says Chandra. “That was something I’d never been told before, because in school, we’re always taught to answer questions, but not really question things. The heart of science is that driving curiosity and learning to question things…I think things really started flourishing for me from there.”
In high school, Chandra placed among the top 20 chemistry students in the country as a U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad Finalist and was named an AP Scholar and Indiana Academic All-Star. He spent a summer conducting research with a scientist at the Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) to discover a drug that could protect cancer patients’ healthy cells during chemotherapy treatments.
“That was an amazing experience,” says Chandra. “Even though we have a fabulous high school, there’s only so much they can afford [for the labs]. But when you go into a professional lab, it’s pristine, they have the best equipment and all the chemicals you need for any assay. And the guidance Dr. Quilliam [at IUSM] provided was unparalleled. He was able to read DNA codes from just his memory.”
Miss Science also conducted research at a university lab. She worked with an IUPUI professor to create a two-dimensional mathematical model that illustrates the behavior of certain neurons. Ma found value in the experience because it forced her out of her science comfort zone.
“I was kind of intimidated, actually, because research is finding something new, and I wondered if I was capable,” says Ma. “It was really cool doing research that was legitimate and could actually be useful in the world of science. Just the whole experience of going to a university and doing research with a professor—it was really cool.”
Ma’s impressive science resume proves she was up for the task. She, too, was named a National AP Scholar and a National Merit Scholarship Finalist. She recalls first falling in love with science during her middle school years, when the material became complex enough to make her hungry for more.
“I realized how intriguing it is and how useful it is in solving today’s complex problems,” says Ma. “I found the whole general realm of science very interesting and exciting to learn.”
She soon discovered a passion for medical science after taking biology and anatomy courses and hopes to become a doctor.
“I’d also like to continue doing more research in the future,” says Ma. “I’m hoping to do a lot of research in college and medical school to contribute to science, and someday, have a solid medical practice.”
Carmel High School Chemistry Teacher Ginny Kundrat, who mentored both students as their Science Bowl instructor, says Ma and Chandra excel because they “take the initiative.”
“They’ve done extra work on their own,” says Kundrat. “It just speaks to the quality of preparation, their interest and the devotion they have. They also have a great work ethic for preparing and gaining knowledge in their fields of interest in science.”
Mr. and Miss Science are both headed to the East Coast for college this fall; Ma will study biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chandra will attend Harvard University, where he’s considering chemistry or computer science. Both say they’re eager to rub elbows with other students who share their interests.
“I’m most excited about getting to meet other people who are just as passionate about science as I am,” says Chandra. “They’re the best of the best, and it’s going to be amazing to be able to learn from them.”