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Rhodes through Potomac

Potomac students and Montgomery Blair graduates Satija and Hwang receive Rhodes Scholarships.

\William Hwang triple-majors in biomedical engineering, physics and electrical and computer engineering at Duke University. For an explanation on how fiberoptics work, Hwang defers to a group of middle-school students at College Park. As students in the InnoWorks program that Hwang co-founded as a Duke sophomore, the middle schoolers performed a skit last summer in which they pretended they were boats with oars.

“It’s such a good feeling when you explain a concept that’s really challenging, and seeing that moment of understanding,” Hwang said. “I actually think I learn as much as the kids I work with. … It’s a level where experts and novices are essentially equal.”

Hwang’s Duke classmate Rahul Satija double-majors in mathematics and music. A violin prodigy from the age of 2 1/2, he’s soloed at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and is the concertmaster for the Duke Symphony Orchestra. As musically adept as Satija is, he teaches the Suzuki Method to children in the elementary schools of Durham, N.C.

It’s a philosophy Hwang and Satija share — their expertise in their fields is something that young students of all backgrounds are capable of picking up. Their belief is one of many similarities between the two Duke seniors, both of whom grew up in Potomac and attended Montgomery Blair High School’s science magnet program and graduated in 2002.

Now Satija and Hwang are both Rhodes Scholars. They were two of the 32 college students in the United States who received the prestigious Rhodes Scholarships on the weekend of Nov. 19.

“They’re the ones that are going to go out and do wonderful things,” said Angie Bosse, a biological chemistry and genetics teacher who taught both Satija and Hwang in Blair’s magnet program. “They’re the type that will go out and find ways to do different things. They’re not going to wait for things to come to them.”

SATIJA AND HWANG are the first Rhodes Scholars in the 21-year history of Blair’s science, math and computer science magnet program.

“My students were curious. … They ask, ‘What’s it about?’” Bosse said. For years, it has been a lock that at least several Blair magnet students will be named Intel Science Talent Search scholarship semifinalists each January. Now they have an example of achievements on the next level, Bosse said.

“[Attending Blair] was just an incomparable experience. … There are not a lot of high schools that offer Java and 3-D graphics,” Satija said. “It was the brightest group of students I’ve ever seen.”

Originally, Hwang wasn’t sure what to make of “a drill sergeant-like teacher,” PowerPoint presentations or projects on biotechnological patents at Blair. When Hwang arrived at Duke, he realized how accelerated the magnet program’s courseload was. “Some of the experiences are so different from some of my peers from other parts of the country,” he said.

SATIJA BEGAN playing the violin when he was 2 1/2 years old. A personal highlight for Satija is when he soloed as a Blair student performing with the Montgomery County Youth Orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall. “It’s one of the most beautiful places to play,” Satija said. Along with several other Duke students, Satija teaches the Suzuki Method to Durham students.

“The violin repertoire is fantastic,” Satija said. “It’s a great way to take a break from science [and] it’s a social thing as well as a musical thing. … It’s a really great way to make friends and stay close to people.”

Satija said his parents were the greatest influence. Both are physiologists, and Satija said they were encouraging without pushing him too hard toward any field. Satija’s sister Neena is a junior who studies in Richard Montgomery High School’s International Baccalaureate program. Both Satija siblings were accomplished varsity tennis players — Rahul played No. 1 singles for Blair, but he said his tennis feats don’t match those of Neena, who finished No. 4 in Maryland’s state doubles tournament with now-senior Sruthi Arepali last May. “I’d get pretty badly beaten sometimes,” Satija said.

Bosse described Satija as a very well-rounded student. “He would come to class with his tennis racket or his tennis warmups on. … He would talk a lot about his music,” Bosse said. “He was very personable and easy to talk to. He loved getting into class discussions and debates.”

TWO SUMMERS AGO, robots cruised through an obstacle course on the floor of Scotland Community Center. The robots were built by students attending the inaugural year of InnoWorks, a nonprofit that Hwang cofounded to develop science and engineering programs for students from underprivileged backgrounds.

Hwang initially hoped to launch InnoWorks in the summer of ‘03, but it was not until Montgomery County and Duke University agreed to sponsor the program, and the program received a $20,000 research grant, that InnoWorks became a reality in the summer of 2004. More than 30 elementary and middle school students attended the weeklong ‘04 project at Scotland. Elementary and middle school students designed robots by computer model, then constructed the robots with Legos, touch sensors, light sensors and wheels. Depending on the project, robots played basketball (offense and defense), or navigated an obstacle course and did a “victory dance” when the course was completed.

“The focus is on robotics as a medium to explore other areas … to get them to see the connections and see that other scientific fields have to collaborate,” Hwang said during the initial project.

Last year, the program moved to College Park, but local students were still enrolled and attended the program by bus each day. More than 80 volunteers helped run the program, “Making Sense of the Senses.”

The InnoWorks projects changed, but the idea remained the same. “Explain it to them in a way that they care about [or else] they’ll fall asleep,” Hwang said.

HWANG’S DESIRE to work with economically disadvantaged students began when he was a student in Blair’s magnet program. For magnet students, Hwang said, “there’s a tendency to stay within the program.”

On Blair’s varsity volleyball and indoor track teams, Hwang got to know many of his classmates from the Blair district. “I really began to see that a lot of the local students didn’t have the same opportunities that we did, but they were just as intelligent, and just as hard-working.”

Hwang points to studies that rank United States students No. 20 or lower in math and science performance. A huge part of America’s student population does not receive the chance to study math or science at an advanced level, Hwang said.

With his undergraduate days nearing an end, Hwang hopes to make InnoWorks a program that will continue beyond his graduation. There are InnoWorks chapters at Duke, Carnegie Mellon, Indiana and Maryland — and Hwang is working on a third curriculum with an exploration theme that covers mountains, volcanoes and outer space. “That is outside what I studied, so I’m really looking forward to it,” Hwang said.

“DO YOU WANT to get shot?” a porter yelled at Hwang, who most assuredly didn’t.

Hwang was walking on a lawn at Oxford University where only fellows were permitted. That was his introduction to Oxford two summers ago, when he studied Shakespeare through Duke’s study abroad program.

After his jarring initiation, Hwang grew to love it at Oxford, and he looks forward to studying biological physics when he returns. “The academic feel of the whole town was very appealing to me,” Hwang said.

“I’m a little worried about the weather in England and the food,” Satija said, but he can’t wait to see London for the first time.

At Blair, students and teachers in the magnet program will continue to follow the feats of the trailblazing Blazers. “It’s nice to hear about what the kids are doing when they leave here,” Bosse said.

DUKIES' DOCKETS

Multiple majors, community service endeavors and Rhodes-caliber research projects? William Hwang and Rahul Satija have plenty on their dockets, and that was true long before the Duke University seniors arrived at Durham.

Both Hwang and Satiija are 2002 graduates of Montgomery Blair High School, and each commuted to Blair from Potomac as part of the school’s science magnet program. “I got up at 6, which is pretty unimaginable now,” Hwang said.

Satija is a double major in music and biology, and the two fields bring balance to his life. He is serious about the violin — he’s played since he was 2 1/2 years old, and he holds Duke’s only music performance scholarship — but playing can also be a good shift from researching genomes. “It’s a great way to take a break from science [and] it’s a social thing as well as a musical thing,” said Satija.

Hwang doesn’t consider himself a model of time management. However, in his early childhood, Hwang’s father got him into a habit of writing a schedule for each day.

While the day’s events rarely played out as scheduled, Hwang said it still helped to think things over in advance. “Each night before I go to bed, I try to think about the things I do [the next] day.”

As for handling the workload of a triple-major, Hwang said there’s a simple way to make it manageable: enjoy it. “If you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not a chore,” Hwang said.

BIOINFORMATICS

No wonder Rahul Satija is a Rhodes Scholar. At Oxford, he’ll study bioinformatics, a field whose mere name intimidates scientists and the science-impaired alike. “It’s a hard-to-define field. Even the scientists can’t do it,” said Angie Bosse, who teaches biological chemistry and genetics in Montgomery Blair High School’s science magnet program.

Essentially, bioinformatics is a means of combining biological science with computer science. “It’s a way of looking at biology by combining computer science with the lab bench research,” Bosse said.

He likens the field to a giant telephone directory that has thousands of numbers, but no names.

“We sequence the human genome,” Satija said. “We have this really long genome sequence [and] we don’t really know what any of this information means."