Riverside high schooler honored for work to promote science, math to her peers
Growing up, Esther Koh dreamed of becoming a scientist.
It wasn’t until she started high school and got involved with Project Lead the Way, a K-12 program that includes a focus on engineering, that the 17-year-old aspiring bioengineer learned she could combine her two loves.
“If you are a creative person, there is so much you can do with engineering,” she said.
The King High School senior, who lives in Riverside, CA, co-founded a women in engineering club on campus a couple of years ago and now serves as the club’s president.
The club is a chapter of SWENext, a program for girls 18 and under that encourages them to pursue engineering and offers them resources to pursue that field.
Her dedication to promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to her peers recently earned her the SWENext Global Innovator Award from the Society of Women Engineers. She was one of seven young women nationwide to travel to Austin, TX in October to receive an award. Watch her award submission video below.
Koh submitted essays and a video highlighting her on-campus and off-campus activities as part of the application process.
“I didn’t have high hopes, but I was going to regret it if I didn’t try,” she said. “When I found out I got it, it was complete and utter shock.”
Besides her involvement in Women in Engineering, Koh also competes in Science Olympiad and coaches middle school students. She also has medaled at state science fairs, competed in the Southern California Junior Science and Humanities Symposium and works on research projects with scientists at UC Riverside.
King teacher Michele Hampton had Koh as a sophomore in her honors chemistry class and has been her mentor.
“She was just phenomenal,” Hampton said of Koh. “Academically, she goes above and beyond. Her work is always stellar.”
Hampton has been connecting students with internships for more than a decade, so when Koh came to her and said she wanted more opportunities to work on a research project, Hampton introduced her to Linda Walling, a genetics professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at UC Riverside.
Walling has been working with Koh since the summer after the teen’s freshman year. Koh, who has worked on a project identifying defense genes against white fly in cassava, has won numerous awards, she said.
“Esther just has the presence and this understanding of her project,” Walling said. “She is confident without being cocky.”
Koh works closely with Patrick Thomas, a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in plant biology. Thomas said Koh loves an opportunity to work with the lab equipment. She is responsible and eager to learn, he added.
“If I was working on something in the lab on a Saturday, she is the kind of student I would call,” he said. “That’s unusual for a high school student.”
Occupation: senior at King High School
Notable: The Society of Women Engineers recently honored Koh with the SWENext Global Innovator Award at its annual conference.