It’s not everyday that a high school student’s research manuscript goes viral, but Horizon scholar Kelly Shahu wrapped up 2022 with over 100,000 downloads of her research paper analyzing the neurological patterns which help to demystify the largely misunderstood Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Kelly joined the Horizon Academic Research Program in the Fall of 2021 knowing that conducting a college-level research project would remedy the boredom and lack of academic rigor she was plunged into as the world went offline during the pandemic. Enrolling in the Neuroscience section, Kelly worked and learned alongside Horizon’s highly experienced PhD affiliate Ellen R. from the University of Cambridge to develop her independent research study — eventually fulfilling her objective of reaching a larger audience by getting published in the International Journal of Medical Physiology. Students who wish to make an impact in their community can follow in her footsteps by embarking on their own research journey, starting with applying to the Horizon Academic Research Program.
During our interview, Kelly talked extensively about the productive and enriching dynamic between her and her mentor — describing it as “a very nice relationship, very supportive, and also very collaborative.” When asked to elaborate on what this means, Kelly used an example that demonstrates the interactive nature of Ellen’s pedagogy during their private sessions. She mentioned that after the major ground they covered in the initial meetings, she also pitched in on “some occasions [by] prepar[ing] small lectures to practice.” So it didn’t take long for Kelly to tell that Ellen was heavily invested in her education. Her empathetic approach did not go unnoticed in instances when “she adapted materials and the lesson based on [Kelly’s] personal context” — a student who went to an Italian high school and was “really stepping outside of [her] comfort zone because [she] wasn’t even speaking English very fluently” prior to starting the program.
Upon completing the program, Kelly was born anew as a scholar. Not only was she able to take away hard skills and interpersonal skills, but she found that the experience also enabled her to learn more about herself. With respect to the former, she stated that the program “definitely helped me for the technical terms, for time management skills, and also how to build supportive relationships with professors and this will be really helpful for my university career since it will allow me to really try to find the right support and know how to manage different situations and know also how to inspire others in small lectures or activities.” Beyond mastering how to decipher jargon and network with academics, Kelly felt that “the program definitely fulfilled all [her] expectations” for three main reasons: 1) “I learned many different aspects about my personality” after she took the Myer Briggs test and analyzed it with Ellen’s guidance, 2) “it really gave me an insight in what I want to do for my future career”, and 3) “it really made me have even more curiosity towards this topic.”
When the news of publication reached her inbox, Kelly was shocked by her own emotions while processing the email. She “didn’t expect to be that happy. So for me, it was a wonderful journey because I knew all the dedication and time commitment that I put [in]. And it took a lot to get there.” Kelly was not solely referring to the effort that conducting research demands but also the emotional labor entailed in undertaking a project with a very personal component attached to it. She narrowed down on her research question because so little is known about ASD and prejudices against autistic people run rampant in society. She recalled that her interest stems from elementary school where her grade level included multiple autistic peers who were ostracized and “frequently isolated by teachers that were supposed to support them. They didn’t really know how to do it because they weren’t educated about this condition.” Summing up her final thoughts on a research manuscript tackling such a vital issue, Kelly noted that “the most gratifying part, I think, was not the fact that it was published — even though I was really happy and satisfied about it — but it was the number of people that reached out to me. They wrote me personal messages or emails and they were thanking me because they had some relatives with autism and therefore they were [now] more educated about it.”