Michael’s Story: Discovering and Persevering with Passion
Michael’s Story: Discovering and Persevering with Passion
By: Michael Ocran
Photos By: Timothy Lee
I’m a Ghanaian- American and while my parents came from Ghana, I was born and raised in the Bronx. I went to Democracy Prep High School in Harlem. When I was younger I had no idea what I would grow up to be. Coming from an African household, it seemed my options were either to become a doctor or a lawyer. Everything else was too risky. However, when I was a little kid I wanted to be a cop so I could save the day. I grew out of that phase though. Then, later on I thought maybe I would be a plastic surgeon.
I also had engineering on my mind because I watched this anime called Full Metal Alchemist. I even wrote my college application essay on this! I thought it was risky, but my counselor thought it was creative. The idea in Full Metal Alchemist is people have cool metal-like arms which are prosthetics. The setting is in a world where it seems those prosthetics were inexpensive, as if almost anyone could access them. Just like how common cars are to us in our world. I wanted to live in a world where prosthetics of that caliber were available to everyone. So this show really inspired me to pursue becoming an engineer.
My college counselor, Mr. Yang, really influenced me because my idea initially when I was thinking about college was to only apply to State Universities of NY (SUNY) being that they are more affordable. But he took me out of that bubble and he encouraged me to learn about different experiences and opportunities. He told me about a number of colleges that would further my science interests and were more competitive compared to only looking at SUNYs. I wasn’t confident about the whole college process, but he made sure I was able to complete it. He also told me about the Hk Maker Lab program with HYPOTHEkids, Harlem Biospace, and Columbia University. I realized this was a start of pursuing engineering. Hk Maker Lab broadened my eyes to the world and field of biomedical engineering. I realized I actually want to take part of this world.
With Hk Maker Lab, my team and I focused our project on trying to create an inexpensive water filter since the prevalence of water borne diseases in the world is a huge issue. We tried to make use of UV filtration through UV rays, but that didn’t really work out because we were trying to use an actual lightbulb but it was difficult to find the right bulb. We were trying to find an LED form but we came to realize that was not available to us as high school students. Likewise, we didn’t know how to make UV bulbs. So instead we created a model for this bulb and water filter.
Most of the program was spent doing research on the computer or doing experiments in the lab. In order to use UV filtrations, you have to first get rid of the big particles like dirt. So this was a whole process - we had a bunch of water spills so it was messy at times. By the end of the summer I realized we were standing on shaky ground since we did not have an actual prototype, but just a model of what it could become. So this experience also taught me a lot about marketing and public speaking. I realized I really had to sell our model during our research presentation. I just wanted to make sure that when I presented, it would be my best self and best presentation. So I just focused on this goal and sharing the research we had done so far.
The last day of the program, the day of graduation, was the most memorable. Everyone got all dapper and put on their suits and ties. I was excited and proud to graduate from the program.
Dr. Kyle, the instructor of Hk Maker Lab program, was impressed by how much work and effort I put into the program. I would come in early. He even wrote a teacher’s recommendation for me for my college application. He also connected me with Christine Kovich, the co-founder of Harlem Biospace and HYOPTHEkids, and she offered another opportunity for me. Since my school has a graduation requirement called the “Change The World Project” where you take on a task to positively impact the world, we were able to collaborate further. I took my project from Hk Maker Lab and furthered it for my “Change The World Project.” This project requires 100 hours of work. So Ms. Kovich supported me to be able to work at Harlem Biospace on this project. I tried to take my project to another level, but this ultimately was a learning experience for me. I realized I didn’t have all the resources and wasn’t as prepared to truly take this project on - and my high school teacher, my project advisor, realized this, too. I tried my best at it and learned a lot through the process. I wanted to find more research on it but time was a constraint.
Beyond this project, Ms. Kovich has been so helpful in life. She introduced me to opportunities to speak to younger students in the NYC Science Research Mentoring Consortium. She introduced me to another science program that I worked in last year during my first year of college. It was really beneficial to get that professional experience.
My high school was extremely small. So small that we were only in half of one floor of a public school building. So given its size our high school lab was not really up to par with Columbia University’s lab. It was in Columbia’s lab where I really learned how to use lab equipment like a spectrometer and a laser-cutter. They introduced me to a lot of techniques to work in the lab. Dr. Kyle taught me how to use all the equipment and this was really practical and helpful for my future in STEM. Also this experience helped me in other ways too. For example, I’m not a very social person, but being part of Hk Maker Lab was my first time actually networking and I surprisingly found it really fun. Ultimately, my experience with Hk Maker Lab solidified my interest in biomedical engineering.
My experience with Hk Maker Lab also prepared me for life after high school. I knew the lab experience I was getting high school was nowhere in comparison to what I would experience at the college level. So the program introduced me to this. The other element the program prepared me for was building relationships with people who were different than me. The people I met through Hk Maker Lab were really interesting. Up until high school, I went to schools or lived in neighborhoods where Black or Latino students were the majority. This was the first time I met people from different backgrounds and different high schools. It was fun hanging out with them. Sometimes I would even play soccer with Arif and his friends which was fun.
Being part of the Consortium is a great opportunity to find people with similar interests and passions for science as your own. It is a friendly environment so it is easy to talk with one another. You also get free tickets to the museum so that’s pretty cool! In a way the Consortium prepares young people for this similar experience in college which is a great thing.
I’m now a rising college sophomore at Emory University. I’m currently undeclared for a major, but I am considering the pre-dentistry track. In all honesty though, I’m still thinking about biomedical engineering. Those are the main two interests of mine. I don’t know what the future holds. It could be anything right now. Whatever it ends up being though, it’s going to follow science heavily no matter what.
Science matters a whole lot in this world. Nothing would be good without science. The first instinct is to think and to be curious about the world, and in order to find the answers to these questions we have to use science. Even the process of thinking uses science. Science has a huge role in everything we do from the games we play to eating to our health and beyond.
I want the younger generation to know that science is cool. What is most important in life is to be passionate. If you find something you like, be passionate about it. I know a lot of times when I personally was pursuing my passions for science, I had people on the sidelines saying “Man, you’re corny for that.” I would just say “Nah, I’m okay.” I didn’t let that or anyone stop me from being myself and pursuing my passion for science. So my advice to everyone is to ignore doubters. Surround yourself with positive people, because if you surround yourself with negative people you’ll end up giving up on your passions and yourself.