Humans of Harker: Musical equations

Emily Zhou (12) pursues research linking STEM and the arts


Esha Gohil

“I want to be remembered for taking my skill set and doing something slightly out-of-the-box. I’m not just a STEM kid, I’m someone who sees the problems in her society and tries hard to develop solutions,” Emily Zhou (12) said.

When asked to describe her younger self, Emily Zhou (12) chuckles as she remembers the various hysterical moments of her childhood. Looking at the roof as memories flood back, she recounts incidents from her youth: asking questions about the color of the sky, the moon and other natural phenomena. 

“I used to ask a lot of questions. I was annoying, sometimes, but I really cared about knowing how the world worked and why it did,” Emily said.

Her young curiosity eventually manifested into a subject she enthusiastically learns about: chemistry. Though she is interested in all the fields of STEM, Emily credits her father with jump-starting her fascination with that particular subject.

“My dad used a lot of different chemical explanations and very technical terms. He took my interest as a learning opportunity, and I learned a lot from him,” Emily said. 

The interest her father inculcated in her at a young age has blossomed into a passion Emily eagerly pursues. 

In the seventh grade, inspired by a video called “The Sound of Pi” that combined numbers with music, Emily started researching the effects of music on molecules. Incorporating two of her larger passions–STEM and music–her research culminated in what she now calls “Sound of Molecules,” a project she still continues working on. The project aims to explain the basics of chemistry to other students through music and other unconventional means. She thinks of music and chemistry as a gateway into conveying her ideas to the rest of the world and plans on continuing to develop and refine her ideas throughout college.

Made evident by her project is her enthusiasm for helping other students learn and grow.

Through her involvement in school clubs and programs such as WiSTEM and STEM Buddies, Emily is able to use her interests and reciprocate what the community did for her. 

“I’ve been really interested in expanding the influence of women in science, and it’s kind of rooted in my authentic passion for learning and a desire to inspire young girls to be a part of the scientific community,” she said. “It’s been super gratifying for me to give back to the community that has kind of helped me prosper, so I hope to pay my opportunities forward to others.”

Her research mentor, upper school physics and science research teacher Chris Spenner, states that she always “volunteered to be a test subject or asked other students if they needed help with their projects.”

He goes on to describe her compelling personality as infectious and captivating and describes meeting her for the first time.

“She first came into my research class junior year, and when I saw her interact in class, she was always really forthcoming even though we had just met,” Spenner said. 

He attributes her success to her hard-working and conscientious nature. 

“This year, she’s taking a [class] that might not be the easiest for her, but she’ll do well because she pays attention in class and is meticulous in her work,” he said.

While known to many as a diligent young woman who loves science, her close friend, Rachel Broweleit (12), describes a different side to her multi-faceted personality, one that involves fictional worlds and silly characters. 

“She’s really into Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and a lot of fantasy stuff that not that many others are into, and we always have great discussions about those,” Rachel said.

Emily agrees and says she especially likes the way the author of Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, portrayed her characters.

“I like how she doesn’t draw a clear line between good and evil but instead proves that they can coexist within one person,” Emily said. 

She adds that her fascination with the magical world comes from how she thinks of her projects. 

“I think of ‘Sound of Molecules’ a bit like that, it parallels it in that I’ve created a different world and another perspective towards life,” Emily said. 

Similar to how her project incorporates both music and chemistry, Emily views performing arts as an important part of her life that balances out her STEM side and allows her to take a step back from it. She has been involved in performing from a young age, starting dance and piano at the age of three and violin at the age of seven. 

Not only does it provide a change in pace from her main focus in STEM, but Emily also formed relationships and met most of her closest friends in the school’s orchestra. She fondly remembers orchestra trips and describes them as “little vacations” with her friends.

Annabelle Ju (12), another close friend, reinforces Emily’s attention-to-detail in her friendships, describing her as always being in tune with her friends’ emotions. She adds that Emily can always brighten up her day with a simple wave.

“I see her down the hall or in a class, and she’ll just wave at me even if she’s doing something else. If I’m feeling down that day, she can always bring a smile to my face,” Annabelle said. 

Emily believes that she can use the unique intersection of her skills–chemistry and music–to make a larger impact, and she hopes that’s what people will remember.

“I want to be remembered for taking my skill set and doing something slightly out-of-the-box,” she said. “I’m not just a STEM kid, I’m someone who sees the problems in her society and tries hard to develop solutions.”