The Many Faces of Gifted: Albert

November 5, 2013

By Carole Rosner

Every gifted person has a unique story. The following story is part of a series of posts depicting the many faces of gifted by highlighting gifted children and adults we have found through IEA programs. IEA’s Apprenticeship Program – mentioned in this story – links gifted high school students from across the country with mentors who advance each participant’s skills through the application of knowledge and exposure to real world experiences.

Albert Keung
2000 Apprentice, Aeronautical Engineering, Occidental College
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Boston University/Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Can you imagine what it would be like to fly in an unpowered glider over Southern California? Albert Keung didn’t have to imagine it; he actually did it in the summer of 2000. Albert was an Apprentice in the Aeronautical Engineering program at Occidental College and mentored by the late Dr. Paul MacCready, founder of AeroVironment, Inc. and known as the “father of human-powered flight.”

“A small plane towed each of us up with a pilot and released us at 10,000 feet, and we soared for what felt like hours without any power. The views were amazing, and because of the small cockpit and the unpowered flight, it was the closest to natural flying I think I will ever feel,” Albert said.

Coming to California that summer of his senior year to participate in IEA’s program was just what Albert was looking for. “I had never been to California or the West Coast, and that was exciting to me. I had also never gone to summer camps growing up, so heading far away from home in Boston was also going to be a new experience. Of course I have always been naturally drawn to science and engineering, and I think some of the more visible and accessible fields for me at that age were in aerospace and mechanical engineering. Cool planes? Count me in! Plus, obviously the chance to learn from a pioneer in the field like Dr. MacCready was an incredible opportunity!”

“Our projects were to build model hand-launched gliders with mounted miniature cameras to record our flights. We learned about air currents, thermals, and maneuvers to take advantage of them to keep our gliders in flight. It was amazing thinking about how much energy for flight and maneuvers could be derived simply from the design and operation of the unpowered glider. We were also tasked with researching a specific area related to aeronautical engineering or sustainable flight and presenting our findings to our fellow Apprentices.”

I asked Albert what one of his biggest challenges was as an Apprentice. “It was deciding on a research topic from such a broad field. We could choose to read up on any topic related to aeronautical engineering, which was freeing but intimidating. It was one of my first introductions to unstructured research. It was liberating but simultaneously very difficult. I realized knowing what I didn’t know was probably the most important and difficult element of research, but crucial in deciding what was interesting to study.”

After returning to high school that fall, Albert looked at the world a bit differently. “The main difference I felt going back to high school was my sense of scope. In multiple ways, those few weeks opened my eyes to a much larger world, both geographically (I loved California) as well as scientifically. I had a new sense of curiosity for all the sights in the scientific world I hadn’t seen yet. While I was in awe of what could be accomplished in flight design, the experience wasn’t all aeronautical engineering. For example, Dr. MacCready brought us to the house of his friend who studied optical illusions. I remember walking down a hallway where flat pictures looked like they were popping out of the walls into your path. There were so many neat and diverse experiences that summer that it made me realize how rich in intellectual wonders the world is.”

Albert graduated with a PhD from the Chemical Engineering Department at UC Berkeley last year. “My thesis work was studying how stem cells can be engineered to become specific types of neural cells. Understanding how neural stem cells sense and respond to their environment is important for both regenerative medicine and our understanding of natural brain development. Specifically I was interested in how stem cells sense and respond to mechanical forces in their environment. In many ways, while I ended up in chemical and bio-engineering, I am still drawn to mechanical aspects of design and engineering like I was during my Apprenticeship. Currently, I’m a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University/HHMI. I’m investigating new synthetic biology approaches to controlling cellular processes and behaviors. My ultimate and continuing goals are to develop well controlled synthetic biology systems to study fundamental biological questions about cellular and tissue regulation and organization, and also to engineer synthetic devices for use in cells that could produce pharmaceuticals or biofuels or sense toxins or cancer cells in humans. Long-term, I am very interested in the architecture of biology, meaning how elements of our genome, cells, and tissues interact to yield such complex properties and behaviors and how these elements can be wired in useful ways for biomedical and industrial needs.”

As far as career goals, Albert wants to be excited and intrigued in the work he does. “A large part of my excitement will be whether there is some beneficial impact, short or long-term, of my work on human health. It is likely for me personally that I will remain in research and engineering. I think it is a privilege to study the sciences and in many ways studying how the world works humbles you just by its sheer complexity, diversity, and unintuitive surprises. But at the same time, studying how the world works makes one feel more human and more appreciative of everything and everyone around me. It’s somewhat like the feeling I think astronomers must get when they look at distant structures in the Universe, feeling simultaneously very small but very in awe. On the engineering side, I like to build things, so what better way to study science than by building something and testing it to see how it behaves. And in the process, hopefully we can build or learn something useful to society. After my experiences in college and graduate school, I’ve found I also like to teach and feel pretty strongly about improving education, so hopefully a career as a professor would be an ideal blend of both.”

Even though he’s a post doc fellow, Albert does have some free time. “Outdoors I like to ski, run, and play tennis. Indoors I enjoy watching sci-fi, spy shows, and anything with conspiracies! I’m a bit of a news magazine junkie too, reading a lot of articles mostly about education but also just keeping up with what’s going on in the world.”

Do you know a high school student that would be a good fit for IEA’s summer Apprenticeship Program? Sign up for our emails and be the first to know when 2014 dates and applications are available!

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