Even when Kay Aull was a small child, she enjoyed science. In her back yard, she wondered how living things like butterflies and plants live and survive.
"I've always been interested in science. I've always been a curious person," Aull said. "That's always been an important part of who I am."
Aull's pursuit of science led her not only to four years at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology (TJ) but also to the International Biology Olympiad, where she was part of a four-member team representing the United States.
The U.S. team was in Australia last week competing with countries from around the world in two activities: a theory exam and a laboratory exam. They will hear the results of the competition next week.
This was the second time Aull, who lives in Fairfax and will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall, has participated in the International Biology Olympiad. In the two years that the United States has had a team going to the Olympiad, Aull has been a part of both. Last year, in addition to beating out hundreds of students to be part of the U.S. team, she ranked fourth overall in the theory exam. Her team also won the silver medal for its efforts.
"She of course has a very strong academic side, competing in numerous events and activities, and no doubt she will excel as a scientific leader," said Mike Xiang, an MIT rising sophomore, who was on the Biology Olympiad team last year with Aull. "She is also extremely friendly and definitely has a sense of humor. She is passionate about her work and the people she works with."
BIOLOGY ATTRACTS Aull because of the possibilities it provides to benefit society. As technology progresses and advances, scientists can explore molecular processes to cure diseases or create healthier crops, Aull said.
She added that her current interest is systems biology, where scientists approach genetic engineering systematically, versus the popular method of trial and error.
Aull learned more about systems biology through her research, which has included designing anti-viral compounds for SARS at the University of Alberta in Canada.
In separating components and trying different combinations of those components, scientists "can engineer cells to have microchip-like functions," Aull said.
In addition to research, Aull has contributed much of her time to the her school and the TJ community. A peer tutor for four years, Aull also was a Homecoming float volunteer, an editor of the school's philosophy journal and a founding member of TWIST, Tomorrow's Women in Science/Technology. During her senior year, she wrote a newspaper editorial on the importance of liberal arts.
Her honors and awards have been varied. When she took the National French Exam her sophomore year, Aull placed first in her level at the state level, and sixth in the nation. For curiosity's sake, she took the Medical College Admissions Test several months ago, scoring above the 99.9 percentile.
Despite her schedule, Aull said she enjoys her activities, including competitions like the Biology Olympiad, where she can meet like-minded peers interested in science.
"I'm going to have the opportunity to meet people and see how I stack up," Aull said.
TO PREPARE for the International Biology Olympiad, Aull has been reading through biology textbooks and checking out books from the library. Knowing that the U.S. team didn't fare too well in the laboratory section last year, Aull has studied dissection guides, so she won't get caught unprepared.
After she returns from Australia, she will go to London, as an award from another competition. The TJ team won first place in the National Science Bowl, which took place in Maryland this past May, and as a result, the team gets to go to London to participate in the London National Youth Science Forum.
When Aull isn't studying, she said her interests are like those of any other teen-ager. She likes talking to friends and reading, and she likes building things.
"Kay is probably one of the smartest people I ever met," said Keri Lowry, manager of the USA Biology Olympiad for the Tysons-based Center for Excellence in Education (CEE). The CEE has sponsored the U.S. teams both years, and Lowry met Aull last January, describing her as sociable, confident and down-to-earth.
"You could put her in probably any academic competition, and she would excel to the top. You give her a challenge, and she's going to meet it and exceed it."