Last April 29, The New York Times published the 11 winners of its second annual STEM Writing Contest and one of them is a young Filipina. Her name is Natalia Araña, a 16-year-old student at the Philippine Science High School in Quezon City. Her essay, “Mycowood Violins: A Different Kind of Time Machine,” was chosen among 3,741 entries from around the globe.
The contest asked teenagers from all over the world to pick a subject that piqued their interest in the field of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and to write about it in the most engaging way possible—meaning turn complex ideas into easily graspable concepts in 500 words or less, while also making the writing a joy to read. Natalia chose to write about the world’s most famous violin, the Stradivarius—which should not come as a surprise to those close to the young lady. Natalia is a violinist herself.
Her essay explores the possibility of replicating the majestic sound of the Stradivarius, beloved by musicians everywhere but whose supply has tremendously diminished over the decades. The culprit: global warming. The climate and environment that nurtured the trees that were used to make the instrument are no longer the same. “Today, as the global temperature increases, spruce trees grow wood with greater density,” explains Natalia in her essay. This change has a big effect on the sound the wood produces.
The essay is neither grim nor hopeless. It is, in fact, grounded and optimistic. Confident that science will play a great role in reviving the things we lost because of the mistakes of our past, and realistic in that it acknowledges “our battle for a more sustainable future.” Natalia’s essay is a delight to read, and will restore your faith in the Filipino youth. We were so impressed by the piece that we wanted to get to know more about its writer. And we’re glad she very gamely answered our questions.
Why did you choose the Stradivarius and the effort to replicate its sound today as your subject?
When I first came across a post about these biotech violins a few months before I even knew about the competition, I clicked on the linked article immediately. As a violinist and a STEM student intending to pursue a career in biotechnology, I was thrilled to see research that involved two things I was interested in. My thought process during that time was something along the lines of “Oh! This is definitely a ‘me’ thing!”
So when the time for writing my contest entry came about, I suddenly remembered the article and realized it was the perfect thing to write about. The contest encouraged students to write about their interests, and I believe that doing so helped me greatly. Furthermore, the environmental relevance of the research was also something that I hoped could leave even more of an impact on readers. By integrating science, music, and environmental issues, I aimed to be able to reach a wide range of people with different interests and show them the connection between these seemingly distant fields.
The NYT essay displays two things: your interest in science and a talent for writing. Did you just happen to be a good writer? What sparked your interest in science?
Personally, I don’t want to call myself a “good writer” yet. One thing that I’ve learned from writing for many years is that there will always be room for me to grow. Nevertheless, despite its many technicalities and challenges, writing at its core has always been something enjoyable for me. Whether I was making poems as a kid, doing creative writing in elementary, or writing articles for our school publication and other organizations in the present, writing has always been something that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember.
More than that, I was also an avid reader in my early years, as it was my dream to someday become a bestselling novelist. I would go through anything from classics to popular fiction books to yearly science almanacs for kids. These science almanacs were written in a way that really captured my attention then, and, despite my young age, I was able to understand the topics to the point that I can even recall facts I read from a decade ago!
And so it was through literature that my love for science bloomed. It became my childhood dream not only to become a writer, but a scientist as well. I think my younger self would be happy to know that I found a way to bring these interests together in my NYT essay. Hopefully, my work can also find its way to other young children who can be inspired by the wonders of science through writing—the way I was inspired in my earlier childhood years.
How did you feel about your essay being chosen among thousands? How did your school/classmates/teachers react to the news?
I entered this contest for the chance to not only explain a concept, but also to present ideas of global significance which I hoped to impart to readers. Winning this contest made that possibility come true. To have my essay chosen among thousands of entries is something I aimed to achieve but honestly didn’t expect, but it gave me a lot of hope and confidence in using my writing to communicate scientific ideas to a general audience. This is something that I want to keep on doing even outside this competition, because science information is something that I believe must be accessible to anyone.
The night I found out the results, my friends and I were in shock recalling how recent it seemed that they were just giving me feedback on my article, and then all of a sudden they were reading it on the New York Times! It was such an amazing moment to celebrate with friends and teachers from both my science high school and my orchestra, and it truly felt like I was able to bring together the best of both worlds of science and music. A lot of people cheered me on and supported me and it really touched me to see that my work was well-received and appreciated by many.
You’re 16. What do you plan to take up in college? And what do you envision you will be doing after?
I’ve been fascinated by biology and the environment since my elementary days, but my specific interests within the field have changed since then. Recently, I’ve thought a lot about the applications of biology in various fields, from medicine to engineering to psychology. I plan on taking a course that will integrate biology with these practical applications, such as biotechnology or biomedical engineering.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown us the importance of the fields of medicine and research in our country, and I hope to be able to contribute to the advancement of these fields in the future. Furthermore, I aim to continue to integrate scientific work and writing to be able to communicate meaningful ideas and information. After all, I still haven’t forgotten my childhood dream of becoming a writer, even though I may not become the kind of writer my seven-year-old self wanted to be.
How do you spend your leisure time?
I’m someone who always likes to keep myself busy, so I often end up using extracurricular activities as a break from school. I truly enjoy writing, so when I have the time and chance to take up an article for something I’m interested in or even try my hand again at creative writing, I do! Playing the violin is also something that I’ve been doing since I was around 6 years old, and I enjoy learning new songs outside my regular lessons.
Although classical music was my first favorite as a child, my music taste has long since expanded to include many genres, from OPM to K-Pop to Broadway. There’s really something about music that is special to me, and I feel like a lot of my memories, experiences, and feelings are tied to the music that I listen to. But other than music and writing, I also try to do some art, cooking, or exercise just to try new things and keep myself refreshed.
Most of all, I enjoy talking to my friends. As the best part of school for me has always been the people, I admit that I often get lonely now, but knowing that I have people to talk to from my class, orchestra, and beyond is something I’m really grateful for. My family is also here for me, and I’m glad that I have a lot of time now to spend with them and truly feel their presence at home.
How has the pandemic affected you?
I had never expected to spend the last few years of high school in a pandemic, and I’ve often thought about how the current situation has led to a lot of missed opportunities—summer internships and field work in school, violin recitals and orchestra performances, meeting and collaborating with orgmates and classmates, and more. However, I’ve been trying to make up for these with the increased amount of online activities that I can participate in. I am happy to say that I’ve found a lot to do even from home—from participating in online recitals and classes to training in journalism and dabbling in graphic design.
The pandemic has also shown me that there really is a lot that we can do to improve the lives of people in our community and country. This is why I’ve also tried to find ways to help during these times, whether through initiating donation projects or simply being present for those who are feeling down. And though the things that I do may not be of such a grand scale, I am doing my best to be there for the people I know I can help.
Who are your inspirations/role models?
I'm actually not the type to have specific role models because I find inspiration in a lot of people I meet! At this time when I am about to start my college applications, I think I am motivated the most by older students from my school community or various organizations who are going to or currently in college. It inspires me to see that they are on the path to pursuing their dreams while showing the world what they are passionate about. As a high school student, I would also like to make an impact on my community even at a young age, which is why I am working together with a lot of friends in various organizations to promote STEM education, tech accessibility, gender equality, and more. The people I work with are also great role models to me because I truly learn a lot from them. More than that, we often share similar experiences and goals. Because I know the struggles and challenges these people face, and how they overcome them, I am empowered by their strength. Right now, these people by my side are the ones who inspire me the most, no matter how different the paths we take in the future might be. Last but definitely not the least, I am motivated by my family who has always supported me and continues to do so. It is thanks to them that I had the opportunities to become what I am today, and I am happy to make them proud.