The Many Faces of Gifted: Garrett (Part II)

May 22, 2012

By Carole Rosner

Every gifted child has a unique story. The following story is part of a series of posts highlighting gifted children and adults we have found through IEA programs, depicting the many faces of gifted.

Last week, we shared Part I of a story about Garrett Marcotte, an Apprenticeship alumnus who is now working as a software engineer at Facebook.


Garrett Marcotte
IEA Apprentice at Avery Research Center in 2004
Software engineer, Facebook

In 2004, Garrett was a high school sophomore who had just finished – and enjoyed – AP Chemistry and was interested in applying what he had learned in class to a real work environment. The IEA Apprenticeship at Avery Research Center gave him a taste of what life is like in an actual chemical research lab, and “the residency at Caltech, the chance to meet other students with similar interests, and the opportunity for one-on-one mentorship were added bonuses that made the program a great fit.”

Garrett worked at Avery on a project in optical spectroscopy, the study of how light interacts with physical objects. He was assigned to devise a test method for the thin plastic film Avery developed that was able to change its opacity in response to an electrical current. Garrett explained:

We wanted to evaluate the effectiveness of the ‘transparent’ and ‘opaque’ states. Was ‘transparent’ actually see-through, or was it slightly blurry? Did ‘opaque’ still let some light through? Did it distort the images behind the film? Were the properties uniform across the surface of the film or did they vary from point to point? Did the properties stay constant with repeated switching, or were there changes from use? Most importantly, we wanted to attach numbers to each of these qualitative questions so that we could compare and rank different formulations for the film.

The test process I developed involved first photographing an image with and without the film, and then uploading that image to a computer to be analyzed. The bulk of my time was spent writing the code for the algorithms that analyzed the images. I had to devise the exact details of the metrics we wanted to measure, get the program running to compute them, and then calibrate my results against baseline measures we could get with other equipment in the lab. Then I had to streamline the process so it could be done quickly for dozens of samples, and have all the data presented neatly for comparison. It was a tall order for a sophomore with limited exposure to calculus, programming, image processing, and a number of other fields that could have made my life much easier. But because of the challenge, every success was all the more fulfilling, and I worked down to the final day to have a finished product I could genuinely be proud of.

As for working in an adult environment at such an early age, Garrett said that the resources available at Avery Research Center were amazing:

There was a moment in the first few days when I realized that not only did the equipment in the lab cost more than my house and everything in it, but I had free reign to use any of it, and if I needed help, a trained specialist was close at hand to point me in the right direction. That confluence of high tech and specialized knowledge is rarely seen even in the best funded of research universities, and seeing the possibilities at Avery was one of many experiences that led me away from academia and into a career in industry.

After that summer experience, Garrett approached his high school studies with a different perspective. He was better able to filter the lessons through the lens of practical application.

“Today I could redo my project in a few days better than I did in six weeks at Avery. But there’s no question that those hours of effort pushed me to where I am today.”

To see where Garrett is today, read Part I of this story.

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. If Garrett’s experience sounds like something you would enjoy, apply for our Apprenticeship Program today!

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