On most days you can find Tianyue (Mary) Gao ’15 in the Mallouk Research Group lab at University of Pennsylvania where she is currently a fourth-year Ph.D. student. Mary has completed her first project on catalytic enzyme micropumps to investigate self-powered and biocompatible micro fluidic systems. She is currently working on three-dimensional bipolar membranes in order to develop more efficient, high performance and sustainable electrochemical devices as a means of cleaner energy solutions. Mary knew, even from a young age, that she wanted to contribute to helping tackle the energy crisis and her passion for finding efficient alternatives led her to this research.
It was quite a change for Mary, who at 16 came to Berkshire School as an international student from Shenzhen, China. English was not her first language, the course load was challenging, and she was not familiar with New England winters. But with the support of faculty members, including her advisor Dr. April Burch, she soon began to thrive.
In her junior year, Mary enrolled in Advanced Math Science Research (AMSR), a program that offers students an independent experience to design and execute a project and work with a professional scientist to conduct real-world research. Through this program, she was able to work with Professor Yubing Xie from SUNY Polytechnic Institute to study the use of alginate hydrogel microfibers as a delivery platform for stem-cells to repair spinal cord injuries. As a senior, she was also one of two students to enter the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search Competition.
Mary now hopes to pay it forward, by working with a current Berkshire student in the AMSR program sometime soon. In addition, she returned to campus on Monday, October 17 to speak to students and faculty about her Berkshire experience and current research as part of the Tian Family Endowed Lecture Series. Established in 2018 by Trustee Jane Yue and Joe Tian P’19, the Tian Family Endowed Lecture Series for AMSR and AI (Artificial Intelligence) provides funds to cover travel and honoraria for researchers and industry leaders who will visit campus to share their expertise. Click here to watch Mary’s talk, and select "On Demand."
Following Berkshire, Mary received a B.S. in chemistry at Boston College. When not working on her Ph.D. research, she loves to travel and enjoys drawing and attending plays and concerts.
Read more about Mary’s work in the below Q and A.
When did your passion for science and especially for the field of chemistry emerge?
I have been curious about science since I was a kid, but my passion for science, particularly chemistry, ignited when I entered high school back home in China. I decided to learn more about science when I entered Berkshire. I took multiple AP science courses at Berkshire, and the program I most appreciated was the Advanced Math Science Research program. With guidance from Dr. Burch, I started to get an idea of what it means to work in a lab and have my own scientific project. My experience with AMSR provided me with opportunities to further discover the experimental laboratory, including the feeling of working in a wet lab, some basic lab skills and software, and networking with people in academia.
Could you provide a brief description about your work in chemistry of nanoscale inorganic materials?
Currently, I am working in Professor Mallouk’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania. I started my project by investigating some fundamental science about micro/nanomotors and pumps, which are self-powered engines that can be applied in chemical analysis and medical diagnostics. Recently, I have shifted focus towards bipolar membranes, which can be used as a separator for acid and base in many energy-related devices. With the unique property of enabling different pH environments, bipolar membranes have become a promising tool for developing high-performance, sustainable electrochemical applications. My work now is to modify the microscale geometry in the interfacial layer in the bipolar membrane.
In what ways is your Berkshire experience present in your life today?
My Berkshire experience helped me become more confident and courageous in exploring the world and communicating with people. It was the first time that I had the chance to get to know so many people from different cultural backgrounds. Also, Berkshire taught me a lot about appreciating the beauty of nature.
What are your fondest memories of your time under the Mountain?
I think my fondest memories of Berkshire are the amazing natural environment and the close community atmosphere. Faculty members were so helpful, patient, and kind to me. As an international student far away from my home and culture, my teachers, coaches, dorm parents, etc., all put significant effort into creating a sense of belonging. They supported me in overcoming challenges and celebrated my achievements, which I genuinely appreciate. I am still in contact with some of them and share my updates with them, like family members.
What piece of advice can you offer to current Berkshire students who might be interested in pursuing a STEM-related field of study in college?
Treasure the time at Berkshire. Not many high schools in the world have such advanced math/science programs that can prepare you for your future STEM career. Please take advantage of the resources including professional guidance, laboratory devices, and the alumni network. Don't be afraid of exploring different science topics if you are interested. And enjoy your time under the Mountain!