16-Year-Old Michigan State University Sophomore Studying Experimental Physics Says Her Mother Encouraged Her to Research Her Own Questions: ‘Tell Me What She Learned’

Maya Wallach’s childhood interest has taken her on an exciting path. She eventually found herself graduating high school in her mid-teens, and at just 16 years old the Michigan State University sophomore is studying experimental physics.

Kenya Wallach, Maya’s mother, told the Free Lance-Star that her daughter’s academic interest grew from her love for dinosaurs. “Eventually, I got tired of her asking questions about dinosaurs and decided it was time for her to learn how to research,” the mother said. “If she had questions, she had to research them first. She had to use certain sources and come back to me and tell me what she learned.”

Maya Wallach (Family Photo)

The Virginia native said that as a result, her daughter garnered a knack for learning. Her research only began at dinosaurs and later to robotics, then to coding, quantum physics,  and finally to nuclear physics. Subsequently, Maya finished high school early and enrolled at MSU, where she’s currently taking a course in thermodynamics, Maya’s mother explained. 

To clarify, Maya’s area of study — experimental physics — is the study of disciplines and subdisciplines in the field of physics that are concerned with the observation of physical phenomena and experiments. Experimental physicists usually work in a lab and seek to test hypotheses and theories, make discoveries of new phenomena, or develop new applications of ideas. 

Wallach said her background as a supervisor of mathematics and science for Stafford County Public Schools and her current position directing Discovery’s mathematics curriculum undoubtedly helped her daughter’s academic success, as she’s been able to help her along her path into STEM, where Black representation is limited.

“My mom always encouraged me to learn,” Maya said. “Whenever I’d ask a question, my mom refused to answer it and made me look it up myself.”

“I will give you bits and pieces,” Wallach added. “And then you need to figure it out, come back to me, and I’ll tell you whether you’re on the right path. So she would do that. She would read my old textbooks.”

However, Wallach had to look elsewhere for help after Maya expressed an interest in nuclear physics and built simulations using the Python programming language.

They eventually met Paul Gueye, a professor of experimental physics at Michigan State University. Just 14 at the time, Maya successfully answered several physics problems Gueye gave her that were generally reserved for college sophomores.

“Maya was able to answer them without assistance,” her mother said. “[Gueye] came to me and said, ‘She needs to be in college, not high school. There’s nothing for her in high school if she can do these kinds of problems.’” With permission, Gueye offered Maya an internship at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a nuclear science research facility at Michigan State.

Like most students during 2020-21 school year, Maya was homeschooled, when she completed 33 college credits. In addition, she earned her high school diploma two years early. 

Coming from a biracial Jewish family, Maya has already faced her fair share of discrimination in a traditionally male-dominated environment. However, Maya’s dad, Adam Wallach, said what he’s taught his daughter is that “There’s always going to be people closing doors and putting up barriers. We try to make sure our kids have the ability to knock them down.”

Her new school load has also been proven a little tricky. “There’s a lot of difficult classes here,” Maya said. “It’s more manageable when you’ve already experienced not knowing a lot of things. It’s easier to learn that way.” Maya recently started her second internship with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the government agency working on scientific solutions to national security challenges.

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