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SHP Sophomore Published in The New York Times

Kelly Shen’s essay on songbirds and vocal learning stands out among thousands of entries
Sacred Heart Preparatory (SHP) sophomore Kelly Shen woke up on a recent Friday morning to see an email at the top of her inbox from principal Dr. Jennie Whitcomb. I really loved your article, it read. As a science columnist for the Quad online student publication, she wondered which article that could be. Then she saw an email just below Dr. Whitcomb’s, this one from the New York Times. “We announce our winners,” read the subject line. Shen was one of just 11 essayists chosen out of 3,741 entrants in the NYT’s The Learning Network's STEM Writing Contest.
 
Thrilled and stunned, Shen ran to inform her family and soon they were all screaming with excitement. Publishing the article was a culminating moment that perfectly synthesized three passions she’s been developing since preschool at Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton (SHS): singing, STEM, and writing.
 
Titled, “From Babbling to Birdsong: What Finches Can Teach Us About Vocal Learning,” Shen tells the story of coming up with the topic as she sits on a bench one sunny morning near Duchesne Courtyard on the SHP campus.
 
As a pastime, Shen enjoys reading science news—teachers like Diane Sweeney, SHP science department head, will pass along articles, or give tips like the best parks to spy a certain migratory bird. All of Shen’s science teachers over the years have encouraged her learning in this way. “I’ve loved every, single, science teacher…” she says in a staccato, clapping out each word, “…during my time at Sacred Heart,” she finishes. “And I’ve been here since preschool, so that’s impressive.”
 
In February, Shen came across an article in UCSF Magazine, titled, “Astonishing Animals that Illuminate Human Health,” which in part explored research by UCSF professor Dr. Michael Brainard about finches and vocal learning. Shen has two canaries at home: a male, and a female. “Male canaries have beautiful songs, but if a female canary sings, that’s a little surprising,” said Shen. She noticed over the months and years, her female bird began piecing together notes and chirps from the male’s song. By last fall, she had learned to duplicate it. “I read this article and I thought, ‘that’s exactly what’s been happening with my canary: she’s vocal learning.’” Shen at the time had heard about the STEM writing contest from a friend. “I thought, ‘you know what, I’m going to do this. I love birds, I love neuroscience, I love music—this is great.’”
 
Shen read everything she could find on the topic of birds and vocal learning, pulling snippets from research journals, and scouring the NYT’s archives. Then she “cold emailed” Dr. Brainard. “He is at the forefront of this research, so I thought, ‘this guy has all the answers,’” Shen says with a laugh. A week later, she received an email back. “I was so surprised—cold emails usually just don’t go anywhere.” She was able to interview Dr. Brainard, who then sent her more of his own writing and research on the topic.
 
She aimed to make her essay “as colorful, vibrant, and informative” as possible in 500 words. Over a two-week writing period, Shen created a four-page document exploring how research into songbirds’ vocal learning could help scientists treat conditions in humans that affect speech and movement. Several rounds of editing lasted right up until two hours before the essay was due. “Don’t procrastinate, kids,” she quips.
 
Reinterpreting dense research journals as easily-decipherable, reader-friendly articles is a skill Shen has honed through “science classes and writing for the Quad.” Her process includes highlighting anything she doesn’t understand, researching it further, and then explaining it in her science column. “There are so many research articles out there that are so flowery and complicated—my goal is always to make it accessible to a wider audience,” says Shen.
 
Pulling in metaphors related to music helped bring individuality to her essay, “and the topic in turn helped me better understand how we learn as singers,” she said.
 
As a six-year member of the school choir from fourth grade through freshman year (she took a break from choir this school year to double-up on biology and chemistry courses), and as a member of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) since the eighth grade, Shen has learned music theory, sight reading, dictation (listening to a rhythm and identifying the musical notes), and vocal performance. She is “highly influenced” by her two favorite singers, soprano Barbara Bonney, and Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, and received invaluable instruction from her lower and middle school choir teacher, Amanda Poon, and SHP choir teacher, Clement Cano. 
 
“Ms. Poon has really watched me grow, she took me from a breathy singer grappling with puberty and a cracking voice, through to Voce [choral elective ] in the eighth grade, and helped me with every musical, including Mulan, Jr.,” in which Shen played the title role.
 
From acting in theater productions, to being a leader on the robotics team and in student government, Shen is a confident academic and artist who credits the support of teachers and peers with helping her flourish. 
 
“Having spent my whole education at Sacred Heart, I’m really happy with everything I’ve learned—the amazing staff and faculty who’ve all fostered my curiosity and helped me dive deep into science,” says Shen. “I'd also love to thank my parents for granting me a Sacred Heart education and for always supporting me in all my interests.”
 
After Shen learned the news about her essay, she wrote to Dr. Brainard to thank him. An hour later she heard back with an offer of a summer research position at UCSF School of Medicine. She looks forward to a summer spent studying Bengalese finches, interpreting data, and observing the avian brain. In her free time, she plans to catch meteor showers in the middle of the night, and write in her journal: a “really, really long” Google Doc she’s maintained since the sixth grade containing daily musings, poetry, short stories, and good metaphors.
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Founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart, SHS is a Catholic, independent, co-ed day school for students in preschool through grade 12