While she says she will miss her teachers, friends and especially her advisor, Mrs. Moore, who she credits with “taking care of and protecting her, making her feel warm in a foreign country,” Yuchen “Mechi” Chen is excited to begin her next stage of her life and education at New York University in the fall. “I’m most looking forward to labs and meeting my new professors and learning about their research,” you would think, said no high school senior ever. But that’s exactly what Mechi says and she means it!
I first met her when Mechi was a new international student at Cape Henry in her freshman year. She initially was not admitted into Honors Chemistry because that is considered a sophomore level class. However, Mechi was insistent on being allowed to take the class simultaneously with Biology and I, against my better judgment, admitted her. It turns out I was wrong and she was right. It would have been unfair to limit Mechi to only one science class. Mechi eats, sleeps and breathes math and science. When I first met her I thought Mechi was her Chinese name – I knew it wasn’t an American name. Instead, it’s actually a name she made up herself when she was younger to honor her love of math and chemistry.
Where these subjects are concerned, Mechi always goes above and beyond. Participating regularly in Virginia Mathematics League and other math contests, she also participated yearly in the Chemistry Olympiad. In her sophomore year she scored second highest in our region, which is a sore point for Mechi. But she only scored second because she missed a question that requires memorization of various elements’ flame test colors. I told her in the car on the way to the exam that they used to ask questions like that on the old exams but not to expect it now because questions that require memorization instead of understanding have fallen out of favor. Oops! Flame test colors are now a running joke with us. Either way, by scoring second in the region she would have been able to move on to the Nationals - if she had been a US national. As a Chinese national she was ineligible to compete at the National level in the US. However, we were able to convince the Olympiad to allow her to participate in the National challenge “just for fun.” I have never known anyone, including me, who would take a day to take standardized chemistry tests and to design and run chemistry experiments just for fun! She has participated and made it to “nationals” every year since.
Another example of Mechi going above and beyond for science was her tenacious quest to take Organic Chemistry as an Independent Study class with me. She and I agreed during her sophomore year in AP Chem that she could do this as a fourth science class during her junior year. It would mean extra work for me and it’s been almost 40 years since I took Organic Chemistry, the hardest two courses of my undergraduate career, but it would mean talking chemistry with Mechi - which is one of my favorite things so I was in. I bought a book and worked on it over the summer. However, in the end CHC reasonably decided that three sciences at a time should be enough for any student. Mechi would be allowed to get credit for an Independent Study in Organic Chemistry in her senior year (which, of course, was destroyed by Covid like everything else). Mechi was very disappointed so I suggested that nothing was to stop us from working on organic chem on our own if we wanted. So throughout her junior year Mechi would come to my room after school with her Organic book and either we would work together or, if I were busy she would work alone. It did not take long for her to get ahead of me. At that point, the student became the teacher.
In addition to loving chemistry, Mechi was passionate about all of her science classes at Cape Henry. She credits the classes she took with Mr. Tom Rodgers – Honors Physics and AP Physics – as being the most impactful of her classes at Cape Henry. She said, “Mr. Rogers always explains everything from its roots, and he requires us to pay attention to every detail. I think his courses helped me build the foundation of being a future scientist. Even if someone does want to be a scientist, I think Mr. Rogers' courses help students know what science is.” Additionally, she excelled in both of the classes she took with Mrs. Moore – Honors Biochemistry and AP Biology. In fact, she did extracurricular research in the fields of biology and biochemistry. She has co-authored a paper, to be published in the European Journal of Pharmacology, entitled “Cardioprotection of hydralazine against myocardial ischemia/reperfusion injury in rats.” Also, she and teammates from China participated in the iGEM synthetic biology competition in Boston, where her team presented their project on blue light monitoring using engineered E. coli. These bacteria could be worn as an ornament by people to monitor, and hopefully reduce, their blue-light screen exposure.
Mechi, I can’t wait to hear about what you learn and what you accomplish next – at NYU and beyond!