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Neural Connections

Featured Photo from Neural Connections

Winter Springs teen returns from a prestigious STEM conference with new confidence and a renewed sense of purpose.

When Mikayla Poe walked out of the large hall where the Congress of Future Science and Technology Leaders was held this summer in Boston, she exuded more confidence than her mother had ever seen.

This year’s conference featured incredible speakers like Shree Bose, the grand-prize winner of the 2011 Google Science Fair; Dr. Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet; and Dr. Asu Ozdaglar, the head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. Sought-after invitations to the conference are reserved for the best and brightest students who have a mind for the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Sure, Mikayla was chosen to attend because of her high GPA, but there was a bigger purpose of the event that she didn’t expect. Mikayla earned her invite because her teachers also saw in her an emerging leader with a desire to make the world a better place through science and technology.

“The conference is three days of being around extremely brilliant people, and the kids who attend are extremely smart, but that can actually lead to some low self-esteem,” says Nancy Poe, Mikayla’s mom. “These kids are very hard on themselves. They’re perfectionists, and they may not have many friends.”

The conference featured demonstrations of robotic dogs and plenty of conversations about college and advanced education, but more than that, there was inspiration, encouragement, and self-empowerment.

“I thought we were going to learn about some quantum physics or something, but no,” Mikayla says. “We were told that we matter and we’re important – and not just because we’re smart.”

Mikayla was impressed with the diversity of the attendees. She met a girl who was blind, a student who was partially deaf, and a girl with alopecia. Plus, the organizers worked hard to ensure the group of students was as close to 50/50 female and male  as possible.

At one point during the conference, Nancy was up in the nosebleed seats watching Mikayla in the audience below. She looked on as her daughter soaked up every word motivational speaker Dr. Sean Stephenson delivered to the crowd.Inspirational quotes like, ”The people that make your glow low need to go,” seemed to be affecting Mikayla.

“I could see her sitting up straighter, and I texted her to ask if she was doing OK,” Nancy says. “And she texted back, ‘This man is moving me.’”

Mikayla sometimes has a hard time at school because she feels so isolated, her mom explains. Mikayla often keeps to herself, partly because she’s so focused on studies, but also because of the anxiety she experiences.

“We got back to the hotel room that night and Mikayla was just chatting away,” Nancy recalls. “I get chills just thinking about it. This could do amazing things for her.”

Although Mikayla’s father, Michael, didn’t attend the conference, he saw his daughter’s evolution for himself when they video-chatted.

“The biggest thing she got out of it besides the convention side of things was that aha moment,” Michael says.

That aha moment was a realization that Mikayla was not alone in her anxiety of meeting new people or trying to fit into a social group where she doesn’t feel she belongs.

“Of course I knew that I wasn’t alone, but I still had a lack of hope because I just couldn’t connect with people like me,” Mikayla says. “With my anxiety, I didn’t think I’d be able to assert myself.”

The conference made it easy for like-minded people who are intellectuals to come together and meet. It took the pressure off, and the kids gelled with ease.

Mikayla quickly connected with a group of students who stay in touch via a Facebook group. They call themselves the Avocado Geniuses, and they all agreed to place an avocado sticker on their conference badges so they could find each other easily at the three-day event.

“We’re not the kind of people who are going to say, ‘Hi, I’m from this group, are you from this group, too?’” Mikayla admits with a grin.

The stickers were a nonverbal way of communicating that made members feel more comfortable when approaching each other.

The annual conference is also about building stronger connections for the future. While Mikayla spoke with congress speaker Shree Bose about their common inspiration to study cancer research, a man standing in line overheard their conversation. He had been studying glioblastoma (a rare form of brain cancer) for years, and it’s the very same form of cancer Mikayla’s brother, Robbie, is battling.

“I just wanted to say thank-you to Shree for doing her research,” Mikayla recalls. “But while I’m thanking her for making the world a better place, I could then turn around and possibly find a lifelong connection who could be part of the cure to my brother’s cancer.”

Mikayla is now back at Winter Springs High School as a junior, and her goal is to eventually study radiation oncology to help find a way to stop brain cancer for her brother and anyone else fighting their own battle. This year, though, she walks the Winter Springs High halls with more confidence, more friends, and more lifetime connections than ever.

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