High School Q&A: Austin Wang

SHADis an educational program with a focus on STEM (science, technology, entrepreneurship, and math) that recruits top achieving high school students from across Canada. An award-winning alumnus of SHAD '14, Austin Wang currently attends David Thompson High School and works with microbial fuel cells at UBC. In this interview with Katherine Chan, he shares what it's like to be an eighteen-year-old science whiz feeling existential about the future.

SAD Mag: When did you do SHAD?

Austin Wang: I did it in 2014.

SM: Was it fun?

AW: It’s crazy amount of fun. Less the things we did, but more the people you meet from coast to coast. I don’t even know how to describe it; it’s so diverse I don’t know how to put it into words.

SM: They are mostly people from science and math backgrounds, right?

AW: Yeah…but there’re also a lot of people related to the arts. Like one crazy trombone player I met, people who are into visual arts...

SM: So what were they doing at a SHAD program? What I know about SHAD is that they promote STEM, which is science, technology, entrepreneurship, and math, right? I wasn’t expecting that there would be people who dedicate their time to art there.

AW: The program itself is very entrepreneurship heavy. So we do something called a Designing Engineering Project, called the DE Project, to give us a challenge. Last year’s theme was “living large on a small footprint.” How to have a great lifestyle while reducing our carbon footprints, so a really broad theme. We had to come up with products. So yeah, you have to use science, technology, and business backgrounds to do that, but I still think SHAD program looks for really diverse people. When they put these different people together, they create really awesome ideas. The artsier people provide really fresh perspectives and spins on these science concepts.

SM: What are you working on now?

AW: Oh, a lot of things. I’m working on a science project, out at UBC, that continues from what I did last year. Mainly that. It’s green energy technology—microbial fuel cells. Basically it’s a device that uses bacteria to break down wastes and generate electricity.

SM: When did you become interested in this technology? Because I know your timeline is very different from average high school students’. For a lot of people to be doing what you’re doing now, they wouldn’t have realized that they’re good at it, or wouldn’t have been able to do it until after university. How long have you been working with green energy technology?

AW: That’s a good question. I started microbial fuel cells in Grade 9, but back then it was just super basic, you know, those cliche science projects. I had a cashew box from Costco—that was my microbial fuel cell. My bacteria was just soil from my backyard. I wanted to see if it’d work. Later on, the next year, I actually got in contact with UBC through an intermediate program, called Sanofi Biogenius. It’s a biotech competition. So in Grade 10 I started looking into the bacteria and did some data stuff, and then last year I did more work on it and it just kind of snowballed.

SM: Are your parents supportive of you doing different programs? Are they proud? Do they show it?

AW: If they are, they don’t show it. But I hope they are, at least.

SM: Do your friends look at you differently? Do people? After winning the awards that you did, or after working with UBC when you’re still in high school.

AW: When I first started working at UBC, I missed a lot of school. So they would be like, oh there’s the skipper, in a playful sense. And then, after I won all these awards, the only questions they asked me [were] “How much money did you win? When are you going to take me out to dinner?”

SM: What’s the plan after high school?

AW: That’s a super good question and is one that I always ask myself. I don’t know the answer, but I want to keep doing something that I’m interested in, and through that I want to make an impact, I want to make a difference. As cliche as it sounds…

SM: No, it’s not. It’s very real.

AW: Yeah, I don’t want to just find a well-paying job and do my own little thing. I want to impact people around me, the community. But exactly what I’m passionate about, I’m still investigating, still trying to find it. Even though I’m doing these experiments right now in the lab at UBC, there’s also a lot of other things I want to try. I’ve always been into visual arts. I’d learned drawing for many many years and I kind of just stopped because of time and everything, but I want to pick it up again.

SM: Would you ever go to school for that?

AW: Probably not. Even though I’m interested in it, I think what I’m going to do in the future is still going to be fairly well grounded in STEM. But even STEM itself is very broad, right, there're so many things to do. I had a good education in music; I’ve been playing piano since I was six years old. I’ve done a lot of it and I’ve also done a fair amount of sciencey stuff…Even though I really like both, I think the science aspect is the part where I can do the most.

SM: I think I understand what you mean. Do you think you can make the biggest difference with science?

AW: In science, when you discover something new, when the experiment starts going your way, it’s an indescribable feeling, you can’t really get that with music. It’s exciting, you practice a lot and you perform, but yeah, I can’t commit to it.

SM: That’s interesting. But you still don’t think that science is your passion?

AW: I don’t know. I guess last year when I finished my experiment, I was fairly certain that’s what I want[ed] to do. I’m going to keep doing it, but this year, [although] I’m still working in the lab, sometimes I pause and think: Do I want to do this as a career? Can I see myself in the next ten years doing this? It’s when I ask myself those questions that I’m not so sure.

SM: Aside from high school, you’re doing the research at UBC—how many hours is that?

AW: it’s up and down. Yesterday I got home at 11:30 from the lab. I started at around 2.

SM: Do you feel like you don’t have time for anything anymore?

AW: Yes. That’s always something I struggle with. Trying to find that balance between not slacking off and pushing forward with the stuff that I want to do. And also finding the time to just pause and reflect, and also spend time with family. Next year, I don’t know if I’ll be heading off for university, it might not be at UBC. I don’t know what I want to do, so it’s hard right now to decide where I want to go.

SM: Do you feel old?

AW: Sometimes when I work in the lab all alone, and the lab itself it super grey, super dull, and I’m working in there all by myself for hours and hours, I feel really old. This is like, what the real science guys’— researchers’—lives are like.

SM: Does that make you not want to pursue it?

AW: Sometimes. Sometimes not. I also really like the outdoors, like camping…So being stuck in that 10 feet by 10 feet cube for an entire day…

SM: Was there any point since you started doing the more advanced work when you started to feel like it wasn’t normal?

AW: No, because it was so gradual and step by step. In the beginning I was just doing some projects and some of the answers I found and some of the questions just spawned more questions and more answers, so on and so forth. And when I was at the National Science Fair, there was a prof that went to see my project, he was like, “If you wanted to be a graduate student, today, I would take you.” Sometimes people tell me, “Oh what you’re doing is really amazing,” and I look back on it and it’s not that amazing. To me... anybody could have done it, being at the right place and the right time.

SM: Are there any friends from high school that you wish you were like? Can you imagine yourself having their kind of personality, lifestyle, or interests?

AW: I guess sometimes I envy all my classmates. I feel like they’re able to just live a normal high school life, and they’re happy with it. Just go to school, finish your homework. For me, I was like that in the beginning; did my homework, hung out with friends, but then I got really bored of it really quickly. I started doing my experiment and then I wanted to do more and more. Sometimes I think I have a problem, if I don’t keep pushing myself, to do harder and harder things—almost like if I don’t feel stressed, then something is missing, and then I have to go and search for it. That’s why I think, in the end, I rack up all these different things.

SM: Do you think you can do that and not feel stressed?

AW: It’s a good kind of stress. It’s not panic at all. I guess it’s just stress by having a really full schedule, being really, really busy.

SM: What’s your favourite class right now?

AW: Economics. It’s interesting to learn how the world actually works.

SM: How old are you?

AW: My 18th birthday just passed.

SM: How did you celebrate? Did you work on your project, read any papers?

AW: I played some basketball. No, it was a Saturday. The lab building was locked, so I couldn’t get in. I think it’s a good thing I can’t go in on the weekends, because otherwise I would go in and then I would be working there 7 days a week.

SM: Maybe then you’d be unhealthily stressed. What are you doing for the rest of the day?

AW: I’m not sure. Oh, I have an acupuncture appointment.

SM: Oh! What for?

AW: Oh...my mom’s really into Chinese medicines, and she always says to me, “You’re always in the lab, you need to destress,” or…

SM: De...tox?

AW: Haha, yeah, maybe.


Read about more inspiring high schoolers at www.shad.ca.