Questions provide catalyst for budding scientist

Questions provide catalyst for budding scientist

CHAMPAIGN — Even at a very young age, Lawrence Zhao had the wits to baffle his parents.

The Champaign native often discussed the sciences with his mother, an attorney with a doctorate in biology, and father, a University of Illinois chemical engineering professor.

"Lawrence always had a lot of questions," said Zhao's mother, Min Wang, "Very early on, he would ask us very interesting questions that sometimes even we, as Ph.D.'s, couldn't answer."

Such instances encouraged him to seek answers on his own, she said, which ultimately cultivated his interest in the field further.

However, the recently crowned national runner-up in the rigorous "You Be The Chemist Challenge" wasn't always just interested in science-related topics.

"I just wanted to know more things and understand the way things work," said Zhao, now 14.

To satisfy that desire, he started reading voraciously. His parents helped him along the way by encouraging him to read and providing him with more books — something he's very grateful for today.

Zhao said that when he was a student at Champaign's Next Generation School, the science fair  piqued his interest.

As a third-grader, he worked on his first fair project — developing an experiment, with some parental help, to test how liquids of varying acidity affect the speed of an apple's decay.

Last year, Zhao upped the ante with his project for the ExploraVision contest, which asks students to explore what technology might exist two decades from now.

He worked with friend Dina Hashash to develop designs for a watch they call BioKT, so named because it would harvest the user's kinetic and thermal energy to power itself and other devices through a USB port.

Zhao said he got the idea after being vexed at the fact that his phone battery was low at the time.

"I just wondered if there's something I can do about that," he said. From there, Hashash suggested creating wearable technology to solve the problem.

To present their vision, the pair built a website with details of their 11-page research paper, 3-D models of their product and a short video of the benefits and impact of BioKT.

For their work, Hashash and Zhao were recognized as the national winners out of 24 regional teams.

Such projects have helped the eighth-grader – now at University Laboratory High School — further his overall knowledge in the field.

Ever since the sixth grade, he has been competing in an academic chemistry competition — the "You Be The Chemist Challenge" for middle schoolers — but never made it to the top, until recently.

Zhao had faced the rigors of the competition twice before taking part in it this year. As a sixth-grader, he aced the qualifying exam and won the local competition but placed 10th on the state level.

"I actually didn't expect to even make it to state," Zhao recalls. "But I realized that I'm actually pretty good at this."

A year later, Zhao became one of 42 contestants nationwide to advance to nationals. But he marginally missed top-four honors.

Then, last month in Washington, D.C., Zhao participated in the competition for the last time. It was a finale to remember — he placed fourth of 46,000 participants nationwide.

For all of his achievements in the sciences, Zhao insists he's more than just that. The youngster is an avid runner — he won the 2018 Mahomet Public Library 5K in his age group — who also plays the piano and loves chess.

"There are a lot of other things I do except science. I'm also interested in math," Zhao said.

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