By Maria Shah
Ana Malagon is currently in grad school at Yale, studying Experimental Particle Physics
- Could I know a little bit about you? For example, where you grew up, how high school was for you, etc.
“My parents were in the military, so I moved around a lot growing up. As a kid I lived on an island called Ford Island, which is in the middle of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Back then we had to take a ferry to get to school everyday, and there were rusting wrecks of ships in the harbor from World War II. That was a fun place to grow up… When I was nine we moved to Carlisle, PA – that was the first time I’d seen snow! On weekends my mom would take my sister and me to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore to take violin lessons. After that we moved to Austin. I was homeschooled there, and prefer that to school any day. I did MathCounts with the Austin Area Homeschoolers and played in chamber groups and orchestras at UT. I also swam, but I wasn’t very good. One thing I really enjoyed was doing the Johns’ Hopkins CTY Writing Program, where I could send small stories to a writer from the program and have them read my work and send me comments back. I really respected the people I corresponded with and still remember the experience fondly. After Austin I went to DC, to a high school called School Without Walls on the George Washington University campus. The school was so named because they believed in students learning at the museums and historic sites in the city, so our homework assignments sometimes had us go to the Smithsonian, or the American History Museum. One thing I remember from then was doing a long project for the National History Day program – my project was on the Great Depression and so I got to go to the Library of Congress to look up primary sources. (If you’re ever in DC and can get into the LOC, go – it is awe inspiring.) After that we moved to Santiago, Chile for a year, where I went to an international school called Nido de Aguilas (which means nest of eagles). And after that (this is the last!) I went to Corpus Christi, TX and went to school at Flour Bluff HS. Ok, so here goes.
So as you can tell, I was interested in many things as a child. I enjoyed writing, math, violin, and history, but when it came time to go to college, I thought I might like to do something different and become an engineer. I’m not sure I had any more than a vague grasp of what being an engineer meant, but I had this idea that I would build amazing devices and make robots.
For college I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and got a double degree in math and physics. I know, I know, that’s not engineering at all. My vague sense of wanting to build cool things ended up being put on hold while I took classes in Algorithms, Topology, Quantum Mechanics, and Electrodynamics. Math and physics are fascinating to me, and I wish I had several lifetimes to learn more about them. It was very hard for me to choose just one field to major in, and so I kept taking classes in both subjects. But at the end of my junior year, I couldn’t see myself continuing in math, and so I applied to grad school in physics and that’s why I’m at Yale now!”
- Do you wish you could do something else? What are the most interesting things you have done?
” The most interesting things I’ve done…hmm. Well, I have learned how to use a lathe and mill in a machine shop, and I can also weld, although I’m not very good at it. Being able to make something is really satisfying and spending time in the machine shop is one of my favorite things to do. I also get to work with cryogens (liquids at very low temperatures) which is something not very many people get to do. ”
- Is your job all that you expected it to be? Or did you expect more?
“Yes and no. I didn’t really know what to expect coming in to grad school, so in that sense, it isn’t what I imagined. That’s one of the reasons people go to college – to explore all the different options out there, since when you graduate from high school, you still don’t really have a sense of what different careers are like. In general, I didn’t realize that being a physicist would involve so many disparate skills – if you’re an experimentalist, like I am, you have to be able to code, design an experiment, engineer your structure so that it works, understand the theory, know electronics, and I’m sure a dozen other things as well. So there’s a lot out there you have to pick up, and there’s no single book to figure it all out from. In the beginning, I was pretty nervous and felt like it was impossible to learn everything I needed to. Over time, I’ve gotten more confident in my skills and ability to understand the big picture in every new project I do, but it is truly humbling to realize that there is so much out there to learn, and that I know so little. ”
- What tips would you give to high school students to become more successful?
“I would like to say “follow your heart” and “pursue your dreams”, but that’s a little too Disney-like and probably not very helpful either. I think studying and getting good grades is certainly important if you want to go to college, although if you can, don’t stress too much about your grades (the ulcer isn’t worth it). More important I guess is to try and be well informed about your choices, whether it’s colleges or gap years or internships or what-have-you. If you can, try going to a summer program at a university, to get a sense of what it would be like to go there as a student. Middlebury offers many language courses, so if that’s your thing, go ahead and apply. Other places have math classes or computer science programs, or writing – there’s really everything under the sun out there. Many of these programs are free or have scholarships so they are affordable. I guess I subscribe to the brute force approach to life – if you don’t know what you want to do, just keep trying things. Eventually something will spark your interest and make you think “ohh, that’s what I want to do” and then from then on, you just have to keep working at it.
I know that in high school, there is this idea that you have to be “smart” to get into college. And while it helps, what I find is that people who work hard and are persistent are more successful in the long run, since at a certain level, everyone runs into a wall, where suddenly they find the material they are learning becomes harder than they were used to. And at that point, all you can do is keep at it until you break down the wall. And that is progress.”