Class of 2013: A lifetime interest in science, with flexibility for Plan B

Emily Houlihan’s love of science is the lifelong kind. In fact, since the age of 3 she has been bust
Scotia-Glenville graduate Emily Houlihan is shown during a winter hiking trip.
Scotia-Glenville graduate Emily Houlihan is shown during a winter hiking trip.

It began with a second-grade experiment to balance levers on a fulcrum. Then it was building terrariums and aquariums. Some days it was lazily perusing a book about the universe that her parents left laying around. Eventually it was her teachers’ encouragement and her uncle’s science lab in San Diego and then a Science Research in the High School program sponsored by the University at Albany.

Emily Houlihan’s love of science is the lifelong kind. In fact, since the age of 3 she has been busting the stereotype that stymied generations of women before her. Math and science aren’t just for boys anymore, and no one proves it quite like the 17-year-old Scotia-Glenville highest honors graduate.

“As far as I can remember, anytime I’ve been interested in something or wanted to try something out, people have been incredibly helpful and incredibly supportive,” said Houlihan. “And I think it’s a result of some fabulous teachers that I’ve had at the high school.”

Next stop: Harvard

In the fall, she will embark on her next science journey at Harvard University, where she will study engineering in the hopes of one day working for Google in artificial intelligence or robotics. She was also accepted to Dartmouth and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“the engineering Mecca,” as she puts it), but ultimately chose Harvard for the opportunity to branch out into different fields in the off chance that she falls out of love with engineering.

At the root of her decision, though, was a desire for balance. As much as she loves science — the girl has spent every summer since freshman year in some kind of science program or camp — she finds solace in contrasting interests.

“I think life is sort of the great balancing act,” she said recently from the living room of her modest Scotia home. “I’ve always liked science more than a lot of subjects, but all the other subjects I still find very important. So I take Latin, I took poetry and I took the freshman writing course up at Union. So that was sort of the balance to my busy science schedule.”

When she was younger, she filled her summers with science camps. She spent the summer after ninth grade in San Diego at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute where her uncle has a lab. Her accelerated course schedule meant she already had chemistry and biology under her belt, so the study of apoptosis (cell death) and protein research that summer came easily to her.

“Cells sort of commit suicide if they’re damaged or mutated,” she said. “So if you understand apoptosis, you understand the way that cancer works and you can look into maybe getting a tumor to self-destruct or something like that. The experiments I was running applied to all this stuff I had been learning in chemistry, like really basic chemistry like concentrations and molarity and running reactions to specific pHs, but I was actually applying this knowledge to do research that could help people. That I really enjoyed.”

A year later, she began UAlbany’s Science Research in the High School program, which allows students to earn college credit while still in high school. For three years, she studied programming and robotics and artificial intelligence. She ran experiments and presented her research at symposiums and entered a final 20-page paper into several science fairs.

One of two New yorkers

In March, she was selected as one of two New York delegates to attend the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia from June 26 to July 20. The selection process is highly competitive, and requires delegates to have not only a genuine interest in the sciences, but a “superior academic proficiency” in them, leadership abilities, social maturity and achievement in other academic subjects.

“I would say that she has said since third grade that she’s wanted to go to Harvard,” said her mom, Claire. “She first wanted to be a lawyer. She used to say she wanted to be a Supreme Court justice, too, that she wanted to rule the world. She has had a mind of her own since she was 3.”

Houlihan likely owes her appreciation for hands-on science to her mom, who works as an electrician and taught her daughters the ins and outs of woodworking and other hands-on projects around the house.

She also encouraged her younger daughter (Houlihan has an older sister attending Clarkson University) to appreciate the outdoors, letting her spend weekends hiking and climbing the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks.

The hiking began when Houlihan was 4. Her aunt, who lives in Saratoga Springs, always teased Claire that she would make the girls 46ers. The Adirondack Forty-Sixers are an adventurous bunch. They climb all 46 of the traditionally recognized peaks with summits above 4,000 feet in the Adirondack Mountains, with some taking the challenge a step further by climbing them all in the winter.

Emily Houlihan had just finished the regular 46 the summer after eighth grade when she felt compelled to begin the winter 46. Depending on the snowfall and the peak, a winter climb could take anywhere from four hours to an entire day, she said.

“One set of mountains — the Santanonis — they’re in the woods about six miles, so you have to hike six miles before you can even start going up and that can be very tiring and very monotonous,” she recalled. “But some of the pictures I have and some of the views that I’ve seen at the top of those mountains, especially in the winter, it’s like an alien landscape. It’s completely surreal. And I’ve seen the sun set from the top of a high peak and that is an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Support from parents

In February, she spent 18 days in New Zealand with her mom and aunt, most of the time spent hiking trails and climbing volcanoes with views of jungle, tundra, rainforest, fjords and English-looking countryside. The experience was another on a long list of opportunities that her parents always made available to her, she said.

“No one’s ever tried to dissuade me,” she said. “Sometimes, I look around and realize there are less girls in my science programs than there used to be. But I don’t know why it happens. I don’t think it’s necessarily because someone’s telling girls to stop. I think that sometimes other things get in the way and they find other interests, and maybe those interests have happened because of this social pressure, but I have never personally experienced it and I’ve always found lots of people to be supportive. I think also, because both my parents like science, that it’s never really occurred to me that I would not do well as a scientist and engineer.”

Houlihan graduates Saturday. She plans to spend her summer, at least the part of her summer not spent at science camp, watching the 100 best movies of all time as decided by a person on the Internet. She and her friends have already knocked off “Schindler’s List,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Psycho” from the list, but anticipate a busy summer ahead.

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