Earning perfect scores on both the SAT and ACT—each on her first try—are only the beginning of Iris Yan’s accomplishments. More perfect scores abound on the SAT Chemistry, SAT Physics, SAT Math, and the ACT Science and Math exams. The Carmel High School graduate, recently named the top science student in the state as part of the 2020 Governor’s STEM Team, is more than a flawless test-taker. Yan qualified for a national program that opened the door to weeks of lab research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her love centers on chemistry, and the Harvard-bound Hoosier believes science will be her path to change the world.
“One of my teachers talked to us about, ‘What’s your why?’, ‘What’s your motivation for doing what you do?’” says Yan. “I think having that purpose is really important to give you that drive. I find science super interesting, and it’s a way I can see myself contributing to society in the future.”
Chemistry captured Yan’s interest at an early age, cooking up science experiments in the kitchen, and she remembers talking about chemistry at the dinner table. Her mother is a quality control chemist at Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company, where her father also was a senior drug discovery scientist before his current role as a patent attorney at Purdue University, focusing on scientific research and discovery.
“It’s really interesting to see how a chemistry principle can account for something as simple as why a table is hard, or why a phenomenon in nature happens—it explains everything,” says Yan. “I also really like research and its ability to pioneer and innovate new techniques and technologies that can help improve society and help solve problems.”
Yan flexed her research muscle last summer at MIT’s Research Science Institute, where 80 of the world’s most accomplished high school students spent six weeks on campus doing research internships with scientific mentors. Scoring among the top 20 students nationally on the Chemistry Olympiad Exam also earned her a ticket to the Chemistry Olympiad Study Camp.
Perhaps offering the greatest appreciation for science is graduating as the Class of 2020, when a global pandemic robbed seniors of their rites of passage, such as prom, end-of-year memories and traditional graduation ceremonies. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, March 13 was her last day of high school.
“It didn’t suddenly hit me and I was super sad; it was like a gradual realization that I wasn’t going back [to school],” says Yan. “My approach to challenges is that there’s always a silver lining, so I’ve tried to stay optimistic and think about how I can use this time to learn something new, or try things I haven’t done before. It’s been an opportunity to have some down time and not be at school so many hours per day—a chance to sit back from the grind of the normal school year.”
And beginning her college career at Harvard University in the fall also won’t be “normal”; she’s expecting an entirely new environment on campus, but she aims to “take it all in stride.” Yan is planning a double major in chemical & physical biology and computer science.
“I’m thinking about [a career] in the biotechnology or pharmaceuticals industry,” says Yan. “Hopefully, something that’s more on the business or marketing side of things, because I really enjoy talking with people, and I want to integrate science with that interpersonal connection. But anything could change in the next few years.”
She says living through a pandemic is enhancing her already deep appreciation of science, “especially since I’m interested in pharmaceuticals and biotech. It highlights the importance of disease epidemiology and finding vaccines.”
A scientist certainly needs stick-to-itiveness, and persevering through a pandemic has only strengthened Yan’s character traits that help her aim high.
“My parents always encouraged me to try my best and give my all,” says Yan. “They instilled that work ethic in me to pursue things—to be motivated and determined to accomplish something and have the discipline to stick with it, even when it does get difficult.”
Yan says the depth of chemistry is one of its most challenging aspects.
Yan says, although the pandemic made the end of her senior year challenging, she’s looking forward to attending Harvard in the fall.