Acclaimed science student urges more support for science education and space exploration

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PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. -- Some news makers burst on the scene like supernovas to command our attention. Others have been on our radar screens for years continuously mounting up noteworthy deeds. That second route is how this week’s Fox 4 young achiever became one of America’s most honored and distinguished high school graduates of 2015.

A lot of impressive awards and recognition came to Clara Ma in her time at Shawnee Mission East High School. Teachers and other students seldom, if ever, were surprised when Clara got them but she is so modest they often didn’t know.

“I think the side we see is the humble, quiet Clara that’s quietly getting all these things accomplished and not crowing about them,” says Shawnee Mission East High School history teacher Brenda Fishman who taught Clara in East High’s demanding International Baccalaureate degree program.

Some things, however, are too big to be kept quiet. In a few days Clara will be going to Yale University and she’ll be doing it as a Presidential Scholar and national Coca-Cola Scholar for 2015. Those honors in particular signify high-level and wide-ranging achievement in many subjects and areas of school and life.

“She speaks several languages,” says Fishman. “She’s very accomplished. She loves literature. She loves history. It’s one of her favorite subjects. So, yes, she is very much a Renaissance Woman.”

Clara’s bedrock, though, has always been science.

“There’s just so much room for inquiry and so much more that has yet to be explored,” says Clara, this week’s Fox 4 Young Achiever.

Clara has been especially focused on space science but she also became a champion of the Earth. Deeply concerned about water and air and other natural resources – she has devoted herself to causes centering on climate change, sustainability and the environment.

“I think looking up to the stars as a kid, I realized how special and how unique and fragile life here on Earth can be and how it’s really important to protect the home we have,” says Clara.

Clara is no stranger to national and even international acclaim and media attention for her stellar accomplishments. And that started years ago when she was still in middle school.

“Curiosity immediately came to mind,” says Clara reflecting on the moment when she was 11 and she entered a national essay contest sponsored by NASA to name the rover that would be sent to Mars in 2011 to explore the Red Planet – and she won. That cemented her fascination with space science and linked her with top people at NASA.

Later she earned coveted internships actually working on projects at NASA and participating in high level events and workshops.

“Naming Curiosity connected me with people who shared the same interest and the same passion,” says Clara. “And being able to share my voice with a platform like that and to have a community that’s so supported me and followed my journey, I think it shaped me the most in that way.” Clara *is* sharing her voice as a powerful advocate for science education.

“Inside me, inside of all of us are elements that owe their existence to the stars and then for some reason I feel the universe inside of me, I feel big and important.”

That’s a snippet of a presentation Clara did for TEDxYouth @KC last winter.

She delivered an eloquent and entertaining talk, encouraging other young people to study science and urging much more funding for science education and for space exploration.

“We really, really need to encourage people to ask questions and to keep exploring because scientific inquiry, continued scientific inquiry is so important to our future,” says Clara. And that keeps Clara exploring -- the Earth and the stars.

It was a busy well-traveled summer for Clara. She was in Washington, DC for Presidential Scholars and California to work on a documentary film on environmental issues. Then she traveled to China where she spent several weeks visiting her grandmother and other relatives.

Her Kansas City TED presentation is a wonder. Watch it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAZjNSnL5Ig .

Fox 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on Fox 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on Fox 4 News at 8 a.m. and noon.

Phil Witt, Fox 4 News
phil.witt@wdaftv4.com