By: Jothi Ramaswamy Date: 1/18/16
ThinkSTEAM: Tell us about yourself and where you grew up (background, etc.).
Valerie Ding: I’m from Portland, Oregon. Growing up in a community focused on sustainable, environmentally-conscious products and technology shaped my interest in clean energy from a young age. I attended public school until my last four years (high school), during which I was lucky to attend the Catlin Gabel School on the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship. My high school experience changed my life and really encouraged me to think seriously about pursuing research at the higher level.
ThinkSTEAM: When did you first become interested in science? What were your first experiences with science?
Valerie Ding: My first real foray into the world of science research – viewing science as an endeavor, a pursuit, more than “just another class” – was when I was about 10 years old, just about to enter middle school. My science teacher gave us an assignment – is a flame a living thing? – and I began to fathom the nuance of science. That assignment was the first that I remember being truly challenged by. My teacher then encouraged me to enter our local science fair. First, I wanted to know how batteries worked. From there I progressed to thinking about the issues around me (hence, energy and sustainability, hot topics).
ThinkSTEAM: Can you briefly describe your research topic?
Valerie Ding: In simple terms, I was trying to figure out how we can harness the power of computers (specifically, quantum mechanical modeling and cloud computing) to quickly and effectively improve the efficiency of solar cells. Basically, this means I want to find ways to get as much sunlight converted to electricity as possible, and that involves a lot of complex theory and in the end, thousands of lines of computer code for me to fine-tune my methods and achieve meaningful results.
ThinkSTEAM: What inspired your research in quantum dot solar panels?
Valerie Ding: I mentioned how there is always talk in my hometown of sustainable energy, and I think that was certainly one big factor behind why I fell in love with solar panel research. The biggest inspiration for me (it may sound kind of grandiose, but it’s true) was standing on the French Alps during the Intel ISEF trip to CERN in 2012, thinking about a line from Walt Whitman’s “On the Beach at Night, Alone” — “A vast similitude interlocks all” — watching the sunlight cascade across snowy peaks and realizing the interconnectedness of the world (in my case, connecting the quantum physics talks we were having at CERN with this critical issue of solar energy.)
I am incredibly lucky to have had that monumental experience. It changed me, not only with a fresh motivation for a particular field of research, but also imbued in me a new vision of the world and approach to life.
ThinkSTEAM: How did it feel to be an Intel STS Finalist?
Valerie Ding: Absolutely phenomenal experience and lifelong friends from the Intel STS and all of SSP’s programs like the Intel ISEF and Broadcom MASTERS. Everyone can apply for these programs, and STS in particular really challenged me to think about science in new ways and be inspired by the amazing work that my peers are working on. I highly encourage everyone to participate and get involved with science fairs. It is much more about the competition; it’s a fantastic, close-knit community and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
ThinkSTEAM: What are some of the obstacles you faced with your research?
Valerie Ding: One big obstacle was that the larger tasks over the course of my research – coding up a comprehensive computer program to compute efficiency, for example – could often seem overwhelming, and in these cases it was important to take a step part and divide the task into smaller, more digestible segments of approachable tasks.
ThinkSTEAM: Are you continuing your research in college? If so, what would you like to achieve with your research?
Valerie Ding: I continue to work on computing challenges in college, and my goal is to work toward developing my skills and applying them to continue to work on socially-relevant issues that we are facing in these coming decades.
ThinkSTEAM: Tell us about your experience of being a 2015 Coke Scholar, AXA Scholar, and Davidson Fellows Scholar.
Valerie Ding: These communities are so valuable, in that they are forged in a matter of days and lead to friendships that span years and years. Not only did these scholarships help me go to college, they also established these inseparable communities of ambitious, genuinely kind and caring friends that form a support system in college and beyond.
ThinkSTEAM: What was it like to be a Google Science Fair Top 15 Global Finalist?
Valerie Ding: Google pushed us to think about how we could really change the world and apply our work, scale it, think above and beyond. It was a defining experience (and once again, anyone can apply online– if you have a question you want to systematically solve, just do it and submit!) and I always look forward to reading about each year’s finalists and their projects when they are announced every year.
ThinkSTEAM: What is your advice for young girls who are interested in STEM research?
Valerie Ding: Two things. First, a mentor or mentors can help you stay grounded, keep perspective, and provide words of support and relay their experiences to you when you encounter obstacles or are unsure of how to proceed with your work. Second, sometimes it’s important to just keep going even if you’re doubting yourself. There were a lot of times during which I really didn’t know if my methods were going to be viable or turn out with any meaningful result, but I decided that it was at least going to be a good learning experience if I failed. More often than not, I did identify some flaw with my results but then was able to turn around and address it after some reflection. This resilience takes time and experience to cultivate and I am so grateful to have had mentors who were there to help me understand this. I wish you all the best of luck, and remember that you have many talents and skills to contribute, and many interesting problems to tackle.