Monica Chang, Camas High School’s valedictorian for the class of 2019, is a big fan of podcasts, particularly those that focus on her disparate interests of science, activism and entrepreneurship.
Some of her favorites include “Hidden Brain,” which uses science and storytelling to reveal unconscious patterns that drive human behavior; “More Perfect,” which aims to demystify the history of the U.S. Supreme Court; and “99 Percent Invisible,” which talks about design and architecture.
One day, when listening to an episode of “Hidden Brain,” she was moved by the host’s telling of a parable called “The Story of the Hummingbird.”
“There’s a whole forest on fire and all of the animals are running away,” Chang recalled. “But one hummingbird decides to go back and forth between a stream and (drop) one drop of water on the fire. All of the other animals are like, ‘Why are you doing that? You’re not going to make a difference. There’s no point.’ The hummingbird said, ‘I’m doing the best that I can.'”
Chang has lived her life with the same mindset that the hummingbird brought to the fire. She believes that everyone should have that philosophy, in fact.
“I think all of us have the ability to make some kind of difference,” she said. “Once you realize you can do one thing, you become empowered. I have had so many privileges and resources and support from my teachers, it almost feels like (I have a) responsibility to do something or give back. … (I have a) desire to leave Camas High School, which is already amazing, a little better than I found it.”
Whether she’s organizing a new school club, student walkout, Red Cross fundraiser or TedX event; conducting scientific research; or using her business acumen to create something from nothing, Chang acts with a strong desire to effect change in her community.
“I would define myself as an action-oriented optimist,” she said. “(I’m) passionate about turning ideas into reality. I really believe in the power of individual action, because if you look at any movement in history, it happened though a lot of individuals making small steps.”
“I think all the great things in life come from hope and optimism, so I believe in that,” she continued. “I know sometimes that optimism or idealism is seen as na?ve or overly idealistic, but my belief is: if you’re young, this is probably the time to be idealistic. I always believe in optimism because the alternative is pessimism or cynicism, and how is that better?”
Chang’s life changed in some ways after a gunman opened fire at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018, killing 17 people.
Soon thereafter, Chang organized a walkout for about 500 Camas High students to protest gun violence and advocate for gun-safety laws.
“I had always seen myself as a politically informed citizen, but I never really saw myself as an activist or someone who would politically involve myself in the state of affairs,” she said, “but that was a really transformative moment for me. (I found) a whole new passion that I didn’t realize that I had.”
Chang has founded several clubs and campaigns during her high school career, including the DECA Girls Represent Public Relations Campaign, Never Again Southwest Washington and Girls Who Code. She’s also been a member of the school’s DECA and math, science and technology magnet programs.
Chang, who attended elementary and middle school in the Evergreen School District and moved into the Camas School District as a freshman, has received strong support from her parents and Camas High staff members. That support has served as her motivation to succeed.
“(I’m grateful for) everything I’ve been given — a wonderful family, supportive mentors, financial resources, Camas schools,” she said. “(I feel) a sense of responsibility to give back as a result of that gratitude. I really learned that leadership is not a title, it’s service, and I owe so much of my success to the community that helped me.”
From 2016 to 2018, Chang served as a research assistant at the Sorg Neuroscience Laboratory at Washington State University Vancouver, where she studied perineuronal nets in the brains of rats.
She also spent about six weeks during the summer of 2018 at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, enrolled in a prestigious science program to design the basis for a new fungicide with 35 other students from around the world.
“It was long and intensive. It was an amazing experience,” she said of the Purdue program. “I thought that was really cool because the program really focused on teaching you how to think like a scientist.”
Chang’s parents — mother, Yayun Yang, an internal medicine hospitalist, and father, Ming-Jei Chang, a cardiologist — have played a big part in their daughter’s interest in science.
When she was very young, Chang asked her mother, ‘Why is the sky blue?” and her mother responded, “Well, the molecules in the air scatter the light …”
“My parents definitely communicated to me the value of asking silly questions,” Chang said. “They helped encourage that curiosity early on, whether it was at the dinner table or (listening to) conversations about their patients.”
“I really enjoy science where there’s not a certain answer,” she continued. “I think that’s a lot more interesting. You’re almost investigating or discovering something. I think I almost enjoy science outside of school, in research, more than perhaps in the classroom in some ways.”
Abigail Jiang, Camas High’s salutatorian for the class of 2019 and Chang’s friend since the fourth grade, said Chang is “the most driven person” she knows.
“When she puts her mind to something, it will happen,” Jiang said of Chang. “I admire her ability to finish something or accomplish a specific goal. A lot of people have that drive but aren’t necessarily able to follow through, and she’s one of the people who can.”
After graduating from high school, Monica will attend Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’s not yet sure what she wants to study, but knows she wants to go into a service-oriented career.
“I see my interests on a venn diagram, and what I want to do is find an intersection for some of these fields. A part of me thinks that entrepreneurship in biotech might be an interesting combination,” said Chang, who enjoys watching “Black Mirror,” playing piano and spending time with her cat, Peeve, in her spare time.
Chang has been positively influenced by a variety of Camas teachers, including Kim Newman, who taught Chang in several classes and served as an advisor of several of the clubs that Chang founded, including Girls Who Code.
“She’s unique,” said Newman, who retired from her position as a science teacher at Camas High in 2018 and is now the program director at Vancouver-based M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. “I jokingly say that if somebody can change world, (Chang) will. She’s a clear thinker, very curious, driven to understand and always does her best. She’s naturally intellectually gifted, very insightful, healthy emotionally and mature for her age. There’s no limit to what she can do.”