Humans of Harker: Learning by doing

Russell Yang explores his curiosity in STEM through collaboration


Irene Yuan

“Cooking has been something I’ve explored during quarantine. I think that cooking has helped solidify a lot of chemical concepts whether it’s hydrogenation, protein structure, the maillard reaction, emulsions, and things like that. It just really makes what might otherwise be any other subject to be more tangible,” Russell Yang (12) said.

On Friday nights, most students spend their time relaxing or organizing their weekend plans.  But not Russell Yang (12). He’s in middle school mathematics department chair Vandana Kadam’s classroom at the Blackford campus for the weekly middle school Science Bowl practice; this time he’s explaining the quantum numbers “n, l, ml, and ms with the board in front of a dozen students.  

Every year, the upper school Science Bowl program provides support to the middle school program throughout the year, writing practice questions and hosting buzzing practice. As a Science Bowl coach, Russell has offered his own advice from the seven years of experience under his belt.  

“Science bowl is the only activity I was invested in and continued from middle to high school… It was still high school students doing the coaching [when I was in middle school] and I remember looking up to them. I remember always looking forward to the buzzing sessions but I think the coaches made a good job at making it feel like a game and not like the drudgery of studying,” he said. 

As an alumnus of the “really intense curriculum” as he put it, Russell has gained a new appreciation for the coaching process.

“It’s cool to be able to mentor [the middle school students] now … it’s pretty fulfilling to be a part of that process,” he said.

His foray into Science Bowl coincided with his emerging interest in other scientific endeavors specifically, laboratory research. He has taken the research class at Harker multiple times throughout high school. 

“[I liked] the discussion based aspect of it and being introduced to different fields of research that I otherwise would have known nothing about,” Russell said.

When he steps away from the discussion table and gloves up, Russell is a prolific scientist. In particular, upper school biology teacher Mike Pistacchi admires his numbers-driven attitude when performing labs.

“It was fun to watch when he was a lab partner because he would get really excited about data analysis and do these crazy statistical analyses of really simple data that didn’t require it,” Pistacchi said.

His close friend Alex Zhai (12) echoes Pistacchi’s sentiments, commenting on his curiosity inside and outside the classroom. 

“He’s definitely a very dedicated person to whatever he does but I think it’s really his curiosity that makes him stand apart … In every class that I have with him, he will ask ‘what if this,’ ‘what if that’ [and] ‘how does this work.’ Outside of the classroom it stays the same. He likes to figure things out by asking a bunch of questions that other people might not think about,” Alex said.

Even in the online format, Russell has maintained his characteristic witty charm fused with insightful ideas.

“He’s always pretty positive and has some exciting things to say when we talk to him both in school and online. He always has interesting things to share or talk about,” close friend Bowen Yin (12) said.

Whether he’s raising his hand in class to ask a question or simply sharing an amusing anecdote with a friend, Russell never compromises his spirited personality. Pistacchi has also noticed a trend in how he has opened up more as an upperclassman.

“He came out of his shell in his junior year. I think he was more quiet and shy at the beginning from what I could tell. He started to get more social,” Pistacchi said.

At home, Russell has also maintained many hobbies in his personal time such as gardening or more recently, cooking.  

“He’s pretty open in terms of what he likes to do and is willing to try new things,” Bowen said.

Russell finds that these activities help him keep his mind off his hectic schedule. No matter the activity, he always considers the broader connections to deeper concepts and how these ordinary pursuits serve as a window to the fascinating world of science.

“Cooking has helped solidify a lot of chemical concepts whether it’s hydrogenation, protein structure, the maillard reaction, emulsions and things like that. It really makes what might otherwise be any other subject to be more tangible,” Russell said.