Rising sophomore wins Jefferson Award for public service

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Sophia Sánchez-Maes '19 at the Jefferson Awards gala on June 16. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for Jefferson Awards Foundation)

When Sophia Sánchez-Maes ’19 was in middle school, her teacher would take her class on periodic field trips throughout the year to the Rio Grande River to measure the river’s health. At the end of the year, they found a small trend in the data that might have been dismissed as seasonal variation. However, Sánchez-Maes’ teacher had been collecting data for years and revealed that the data was part of a larger trend: the river was dying.

“The situation was clear — there’s obviously a problem when the only thing in the southwest without rights to the river water is the river itself. The solution seemed straightforward, but politically, nothing happened,” Sánchez-Maes said.

By the time her little sister was in the same class, there was nothing left to measure. Sánchez-Maes would continue to return to the river in high school but only to run cross-country races in the dusty riverbed.

“By then, I’d learned to be frustrated by inaction,” she explained. “Now I aim to solve problems with science, while striving to be a voice for those without.”

Her dedication to using science to solve problems in the world around her recently earned Sánchez-Maes a Jefferson Award for Outstanding National or Global Service by a Young American 25 or Under. Since that science class, Sánchez-Maes has researched algae fuel optimization, served as a National Science Foundation Young Scholar, and worked for NASA on its Curiosity Rover and Mars 2020 missions. This summer, she is back at NASA working in its Exoplanet Exploration division and she also began her own program to teach young Latinas how to code in Los Angeles.

Sánchez-Maes, who is considering a double major in astrophysics and computer science, conducts research and writes for the Yale Scientific Magazine, and works under astronomy professor Debra Fischer on the rebuilding of the Yale Doppler Diagnostic Facility and on signal processing research. YaleNews recently caught up with the busy 18 year-old to talk about her experiences.

A strong foundation: Growing up, Sánchez-Maes quickly found an appetite for mathematics. In fourth grade, she would ditch her reading book to listen to what the higher-level math students were learning. Her teacher noticed her curiosity and began working with her independently. By the time she was 13 years old, she was already taking advanced calculus courses.

“When I was small, I realized I found math interesting, and it was fun for me,” she recalled. “I learned so much, so quickly, because I liked learning about it, and so it didn’t much feel like work until I got older. When I reached math that became extremely challenging, the reward also increased — it felt so satisfactory to prove something after doing battle with the idea for a while, and I was in deep enough to enjoy the struggle as well.”

After finishing calculus, her school district helped her pay for math classes at New Mexico State University every semester. In her senior year, she was able to study frame theory under the direction of the head of the department, which would prove useful to her work at Yale.

Sánchez-Maes says her family was also instrumental to her success, adding that her parents cultivated an atmosphere at home that was both “unconditionally supportive and relentlessly expectant, never for perfection, but for each of us to put our whole selves into all our endeavors.”

“I remember back when I started pre-calculus, I started crying,” she said. “My parents couldn’t help me with my homework anymore and it killed them, but they sat by my side late at night while I struggled, and called ‘nonsense’ whenever I said I just couldn’t do it. With their belief and comfort, they didn’t ever let me give up on myself… Without my family, I never would have dared so much.”

Science with a purpose: As her mathematical skills developed, so did her interest in science. Noting she has always been logical — “almost to a fault,” she said — she claims she became interested in the field as soon as she knew what science was.

“Science is really a way of approaching the world around you, of asking questions and logically coming around to answers … but take just one look at our politics and you’ll realize we don’t live in a very logical, scientifically driven world, and that was always difficult for me. I have always seen very starkly the problems around me, and approaching them scientifically has been the way I’ve been able to create change,” she explained.

Having seen and felt the effects of climate change in her middle school science class, Sánchez-Maes was inspired to pursue environmental science. She began researching how to optimize the biofuel production process, earning a National Science Foundation Young Scholar award. The goal of her research was to demonstrate a net energy gain from converting algae into fuel by “pressure cooking” the algae.

Sánchez-Maes during NASA's Science Day this summer at Capitol Hill. (Photo courtesy of Sánchez-Maes)
Sánchez-Maes during NASA’s Science Day this summer at Capitol Hill. (Photo courtesy of Sánchez-Maes)

Sánchez-Maes located an extremophile alga, Galdieria sulphuraria, from Yellowstone National Park and was able to showcase the potential of the algae as a “lucrative” fuel source by bringing down the temperature required for the reaction. The algae also doubles as a wastewater purifier and the team she worked with was able to demonstrate its ability to purify water better than the anaerobic bacteria currently used. The unique coupling has the potential to prevent the process from taking up agricultural land or demanding pure water and additional nutrients, she said.

“I was so interested in this problem because it was profoundly personal,” she explained. “I’d just come to the realization that my river was dying, New Mexico wetlands were hurting, and the former grasslands in my state are almost disappearing. Meanwhile, I heard politicians busy themselves debating the very existence of anthropologically induced global climate change. It was frustrating to realize that those with the power to make immediate changes would be so irresponsible, ignorant, and destructive.”

Luckily for Sánchez-Maes, she earned the opportunity to explain her research to the top politician in the United States: President Barack Obama. Then a senior in high school, her findings earned her recognition from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), as well as the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing in 2015 and the opportunity to present her research at the White House Science Fair.

Recalling the experience as “surreal,” she said only a few were “lucky” enough to be visited by the President (watch the video here). When Obama finally came around to her, she “just started talking,” focusing on answering all of his questions and making it all about the science.

“It wasn’t until after that encounter that I was really able to process that I’d just explained my research to Obama, shaken the hand of our commander, and side-hugged the president! Another shock came later, when Obama extemporaneously highlighted me and my work in his remarks after the event. That transcript will be around for ages, and when they build his presidential library, a little piece of me will live within its walls,” she said.

From Earth to outer space: After her experience at the White House, Sánchez-Maes knew she needed to find a job for the summer just as she had every year since she was 15. She made colorful resumes and went around with them at the university career fair, ending up with several interviews. In the end, she had to decide between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and a large tech company.

“A friend of mine balked at my indecision, telling me that I’d be crazy to choose a boring terrestrial job when I have such an out-of-this-world option. He was right,” she explained.

She moved later that summer to California and began working on NASA’s Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers. Her job was to work on the code for a computational modeling program called Cielo. The goal of Cielo is to fully account for variables that impact mission operations on a daily basis and keep the rovers safe.

“By accounting very precisely the heat transfer in the system, we’ll realize precisely when we can safely begin operations without hurting the electronics instead of overestimating due to a lack of information just to be safe and losing valuable science time… This continuing program, and the lessons learned from it, will assist mission control in the operations of these rovers, keeping them safe on the Martian surface, and helping to maximize science output,” she said.

This summer, Sánchez-Maes decided to return to NASA to work in the Exoplanet Exploration division, which is tasked with finding and characterizing thousands of worlds beyond our own. NASA is currently in the process of designing the next telescope — following Hubble, Spitzer, and James Webb — and Sánchez-Maes’s job will be to quantify the benefit of a space-based radial velocity instrument for NASA’s quest for planets and life.

“It’s an amazing privilege to be able to contribute to this effort,” she said. “These missions will generate the data that will define the science of my generation. This telescope won’t see skies for decades, and we only get an instrument of this magnitude about once per decade, so it’s fantastic that I’m here for the very start.”

Sánchez-Maes was also able to follow up on the recent Juno mission to Jupiter. Nearly five years after the spacecraft was launched, it finally reached its destination on July 4.

“This craft will brave unprecedented levels of radiation, magnetic fields, Jupiter’s immense gravity, and the projectiles bound by that to its service,” Sánchez-Maes explained. “It’s a big moment for NASA and a proud moment for the country that makes it possible. Hopefully we’ll continue to aspire to such greatness.”

Back to the community: In addition to exploring planets old and new, Sánchez-Maes began a program called “Girls Get Tech” in Los Angeles, a series of four daylong workshops held across four weekends with the aim of teaching middle school Latinas computing and how to code. She said the program was born out of her “need to reach out.”

“I’ve been so fortunate to have been empowered early in life by being introduced to powerful tools like math and code, which have allowed me to do everything I have. I’m perfectly capable of passing that on and I feel that it’s my responsibility to do so,” she explained.

With the support of NCWIT and Google, Sánchez-Maes was able to accept around 30 girls for the program. Over the four weeks, girls will build a project to advance a cause they care about. Along with team-building exercises, career exploration, and leadership activities, Sánchez-Maes hopes the program will show the girls that computer science can be a “fun, creative, engaging, and rewarding field.”

“Whether she’s coding a website to raise awareness about DREAMers in her neighborhood, a robot friend to keep you company, or an app that will allow people to report environmental issues in their neighborhoods, I hope these girls will come out realizing the power of technology to create change,” she explained.

While the program is currently only for the summer, Sánchez-Maes hopes to collaborate with Housing and Urban Development in Los Angeles for future programs and may eventually bring a similar program to New Haven. Part of her dedication to giving other girls a chance stems from her own experiences in science classrooms. She noted a lack of women in her freshman physics class at Yale, a situation, she said, that made her feel pressured to not reinforce “damaging stereotypes about the ability of women and minorities in the sciences.”

“It’s not a fear I should have, but when you’re largely alone in a field where you’re grossly underrepresented, it’s a lot of pressure,” she explained. “Some of the people in the room with you will grow up and become faculty. If they, too, build an unconscious bias, it’s another generation of bias in education at all levels, which trickles down and multiplies into further underrepresentation on faculty and greater difficulties in the workplace — another generation where we’ve first got to prove our right to be in the room doing science before getting to work.”

It’s been pressure she has thrived in, however, finding that the most rewarding moments in science result from the “most frustrating and drawn out challenges.”

“One rewarding aspect of working in science is feeling empowered: empowered with these powerful tools to ask and attempt to answer any question I can think of … I’ll be happy so long as I’m working on hard problems that matter.”

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