Humans of Harker: Defying limits

Kat Tian makes connections in her research and in her community


Ryan Guan

“It's not enough to just do science. You also need to understand its implications and communicate that to people. No matter how much you try to pigeonhole yourself and say, ‘oh, I'm a STEM kid and all I want to do is study science,’ which is probably something I've been tempted to think in the past, you really can't just ignore the fact that the world is much bigger than that, and what you do will have an impact on others," Kat Tian ('19) said.

When you hear the name “Kat Tian” uttered by underclassmen in the Main hallway, the words tend to be followed by reverent whispers of “Siemens Finalist,” “USAJMO qualifier” or even just the simple praise, “She’s smart.” Walk over to Nichols or Dobbins, and it is unsurprising to find said woman working on her research project in physics and science research teacher Chris Spenner’s laboratory or sitting through a math competition in math teacher Dr. Anu Aiyer’s classroom.

Over the past four years, Katherine “Kat” Tian (‘19) has built a reputation for herself as a strong enthusiast of STEM subjects, gaining respect from her peers and teachers alike for her diligence and dedication to the field.

“[Kat is] a very deep thinker about science. She processes on her own, and she has this very high expectation for herself to completely understand whatever she is studying,” Spenner said. “And I can tell that because when she does eventually ask questions, they’re so high level, and she will go out and do extra work on her own to make sure she fills in any gaps.”

For Kat, science is much more than memorizing a couple formulas or merely solving problem sets from a textbook.

“One thing I care a lot about is scientists understanding the implications of their work and people understanding the implications of their work, because science is not its own thing,” Kat said. “It will definitely impact everyone, no matter whether they are a scientist or not.”

And since it does affect a variety of fields, she acknowledges the necessity of being able to cross the traditional ‘STEM vs humanities’ division.

“It’s not enough to just do science,” Kat said. “No matter how much you try to pigeonhole yourself and say, ‘oh, I’m a STEM kid and all I want to do is study science,’ which is probably something I’ve been tempted to think in the past, you really can’t just ignore the fact that the world is much bigger than that, and what you do will have an impact on others.”

Her initial interest in merging physics and philosophy eventually culminated in writing her Near Mitra paper, “Does God Play Dice? Understanding the Role of Uncertainty at the Intersection of Antirealist Philosophy and Quantum Mechanics.” Spenner, who was Kat’s mentor for her research, praised her ability to take an area of physics she was not well-versed in and learn that while also linking this to twentieth century philosophy.

“[Kat] adjusted my baseline for what students can do, especially connecting the sciences with humanities,” Spenner said. “I wish every scientist had a stronger grounding in broader fields of studies, because science is a human endeavor. Science is performed by humans, and if we don’t understand our own limitations, our own ethical dilemmas, then we end up with problems.”

Just as Kat’s research embraces two very different topics, she herself strives to embrace all aspects of campus life, not just limiting herself to the halls of the math and science buildings. Whether it’s watching sports games or cheering on her friends in the spirit rally, she is always willing to help the people around her and encourage them to be their best.

“She has high expectations and high standards for everyone around her,” Cindy Wang (‘19) said. “She pushes me, and she reminds me that I should always try to do a little more than I am right now. She’s the one who drags me to math class and tells me to do the work when sometimes I really don’t want to.”

Having known Kat since sixth grade, Cindy laughs as she jokes about her friend’s growth over the years. Although “she hasn’t grown taller,” Kat’s relationships with the people in her life have definitely blossomed.

“She has learned to find a balance of prioritizing the achievements she wants but also making time for the people around her, listening to us, having fun and joking around,” Cindy adds.

Therefore, while Kat’s awards in science research and her involvement in the math and programming clubs are all part of her life, they do not define her. Rather, she treasures the people around her and the everyday conversations and moments she experiences.

“This might be a bit cliche, but people view [Kat] as almost a kind of a god, because she’s really good at what she does,” close friend Michael Wang (‘19) said. “She’s a genius. But she’s also a human being. She’s really fun to talk to, and she makes you feel good about yourself when you talk to her. She’s just another person, just like you and me.”

Kat echoes this sentiment, expressing her desire to keep everything in perspective by continuing to explore new topics and make connections rather than dwelling on the many accomplishments that she is known for.

“I like to tell myself ‘the world is a lot bigger,’ because it is. If a bad thing happens, you say ‘the world is a lot bigger than that,’ and you can get over that bad thing; if a good thing happens, you stay humble,” Kat said. “I think it’s important [to be humble], because it keeps your eyes open to new possibilities [and] helps you keep thinking and going forward. What ideas have I not thought of, what things can I connect together?”

Additional reporting by Ryan Guan.