Humans of Harker: Learning from others

Elizabeth Szeto finds perspective and creativity in research and piano


Shreya Srinivasan

“With music, a lot of it is interpretation and making the music that you make into [a] style distinct to yourself. In research, your objective is to solve a problem or find an answer; the creativity plays in the sense of how you approach that, [which is] similar [to] music [in] how you interpret things or how you decide to make the mood of that piece,” Elizabeth Szeto (12) said.

A slight breeze fills the air as senior Elizabeth Szeto slowly flips through the yellow book sitting on her lap. The lines of notes filling the countless pages become a blur, and when she nears the back cover, she gently closes the book and turns it over, revealing the title: “Chopin: Album for the Piano.” 

Elizabeth’s journey with music began at 5 years old when she was thrown into music lessons like other classmates her age. However, since then, she has developed as a musician, even performing with her brother Jonathan at Carnegie Hall during the summer before her freshman year. 

“[Big performance experiences] helped me to be less concerned about … [what] others’ expectations might be of you,” Elizabeth said. “At the end of the day, you’re the one who’s performing a piece to how you want it to sound. It’s your way of performing so that’s really up to you.” 

Not only does Elizabeth compete in various piano competitions, but she also participates in an organization through her studio that fundraises for orphanages in developing countries by hosting an annual concert.

Elizabeth’s eagerness to delve into issues surrounding her also carries over into the research that she has conducted in the past few years. While originally starting research in microbiology, she switched over to environmental science and conducted projects that had real-world applications, such as testing how different types of fibers could soak up oil spills and trying to create a type of bioplastic to replace packaging plastics. 

“I did a lot of reading, a lot of research… on environmental science topics, and I came across the topic that I did,” Elizabeth said. “I was like ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve never really explored this field before,’ so that’s kind of how it got started. I enjoyed it in sophomore year so I decided to continue in junior year.”

Science research teacher Chris Spenner, who taught Elizabeth in her sophomore and junior years, watched her channel her desire to solve real-life problems into her research, calling her a “natural experimental scientist.” 

“She is driven, and she sees problems in the world and does science to address those problems as opposed to just kind of doing whatever’s easy or looks selfishly interesting,” Spenner said. “She really is careful about crafting experiments to answer questions that matter.” 

Despite having now found her place in the research field, Elizabeth faced an initial obstacle when her research proposal was rejected in her freshman year. However, this did not put an end to her curiosity and rather pushed her to continue growing as a researcher as she took on more complex projects.  

“I think [research has] really challenged me in different ways,” Elizabeth said. “I think it’s made me more open or more accepting to failure in a sense like open and accepting to facing challenges head on. I’ve been able to sort of take that mindset with other things I do.”

Close friend Ankita Kundu (12), who she met in middle school, admires that Elizabeth does not give up when working towards a goal and that in the process, she does not allow anything to hinder her. 

“She’s a truly kindhearted person who’s motivated in her own way and doesn’t let any distractions get in her way. When she sets her mind to something, she goes for it,” Ankita said. “I think a lot of people, including me, get distracted by other things, and she just doesn’t get distracted by anything and is determined to get what she wants and really strive for something.”

Participating in piano and research has allowed Elizabeth to gain exposure to a variety of new people through experiences such as journal discussions in her research classes, which had sophomores, juniors and seniors, and performing in competitions. 

“[In my research classes], [e]verybody has different perspectives and different opinions on everything especially since we do journal discussions so that’s been really eye-opening,” Elizabeth said. “I’ve also been able to meet so many people because of [music]. That’s made it a lot more worth it.”

While Elizabeth may not always be the first to speak in these new situations, she recognizes that she will make her voice heard when she needs to. 

“I’m definitely one of the quieter people, but if I need to speak up for some reason or if people need help with something, I’ll definitely speak up,” Elizabeth said.

Though Elizabeth may initially appear to be an introvert, close friend Varsha Rammohan (12) notes that her personality, interests and humor begin to shine through as you become closer to her.

“Once you get to know her, you can see the depth of her personality,” Varsha said. “She’s extremely kind and also super hardworking. She’s never someone who complains about a lot of things. She sort of takes everything as is, and she’s super down to earth and grounded.”

In the end, one of Elizabeth’s biggest takeaways from these two significant activities is the ability to think more deeply and creatively, whether it be when working through problems or learning about others’ distinct perspectives.  

“With music, a lot of it is interpretation and making the music that you make into [a] style distinct to yourself,” Elizabeth said. “In research, your objective is to solve a problem or try to find an answer to something; the creativity plays in the sense of how you approach that, [which is] similar [to] music [in] how you interpret things or how you decide to make the mood of that piece.”