One Studious Girl’s Journey
Sophia Sanchez-Maes is a typical teenager in that she is quirky, spunky and social; yet in many other ways, she is not—most notably in her preparedness. At seventeen, Sophia has already accomplished more than most people will in a lifetime.
Sophia was raised here in Las Cruces along with her two younger sisters, Catalina and Mireya. Her parents are both from New Mexico but have called Las Cruces their home for the past 20 years. Margaret, Sophia’s mother is a stay a home mom while Jim, her father, is a Physical Education teacher at White Sands Schools. Although both parents are intelligent people, they concede that their children are all brilliant beyond their expectation.
“I think there were some things we did as parents that really garnered their desire to excel academically; one thing was music. I think kids need music since they are newborns. Music fosters language and brain development,” described Margaret. Sophia was enrolled in a program called KinderMusik as a baby. Margaret believes this cultivated a strong appreciation for music (she plays the violin, viola, and cello) that eventually led to her participation in the El Paso Symphony Youth Orchestra.
“Another thing was reading; once you instill the love of reading, everything else comes from that,” Margaret points out. She recalls that as a toddler, Sophia would sit and listen to her read the book Heidi for hours and was intrigued by the story and the characters. “It just piqued her interest and she would ask so many questions.” According to Margaret, curiosity is the word that best describes Sophia. She explains that even as a young child, Sophia always wanted to know the ‘why’ behind everything.
“Learning has always been Sophia’s passion,” explains Margaret. From a very early age she was driven to learn more and was sometimes left with unanswered questions. In the fourth grade she realized that she was really good at math and took it upon herself to do recreational math problems at home. By the time she was a freshman in high school, she was taking Calculus. Because she often took several advanced math classes at once, and continued to excel at a very accelerated pace, Sophia exhausted all the math courses available at Mayfield. The summer of her sophomore year, she received a scholarship through Brown University where she studied Number Theory. When she returned to Mayfield the following school year, she enrolled in the dual credit program and began taking advanced math courses at NMSU.
“It has always seemed to me that math is a lifestyle -a way of looking at the world. Mathematics fascinates me because it seems to be this ultimate wonderful secret, the language of the universe and all that. I don't know about you, but what kid wouldn't want to speak the language of the universe?! I'm lucky.”
Although Sophia possesses a superb knack for mathematics, she is much more than a math whiz. She managed to find time in high school to be a part of the speech and debate team, was captain of her cross country team and was a Junior Olympic national competitor. Running has helped her in many different ways both mentally and inspirationally. “Sometimes people ask me if I like running because it clears my mind… But in reality, it just gives me the power to overfill my mind with all the stimulus there is, and in that absolute buzz… I can focus in on thoughts with acuity,” she declares. “I’m happy when I run, when I listen to beautiful music or admire powerful art or commanding landscapes —and all for the same reason. It’s a celebration of all that is wonderful about being human, and it inspires me.”
When she graduated this past May, not only was Sophia the Valedictorian of her class (a goal she had since middle school); but she did it with a remarkable 4.8 GPA (the highest in Mayfield High School history); she was six years ahead in math; and she graduated with enough credits to classify her as a junior in college. Since her graduation, Sophia has gotten full-ride scholarship offers from several excellent colleges including M.I.T., Princeton, Yale and Columbia University. She selected Yale, a scholarship that covers tuition, books, room and board and personal expenses including travel expenses for when she comes home to visit.
As she awaits the commencement of the fall semester at Yale, Sophia’s summer will not be spent by the pool with her friends. Instead, she will spend it working at Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California. She will be contributing to new science and innovations working with the thermal team to develop code to improve the functions of the Mars Rover. “It’s been a challenge for all of us,” says Margaret, “because she’s still a minor. At her age, she still needs parental consent for everything and she’s constantly surrounded by professional adults.”
Sophia has already received extensive awards and recognition for her work in the engineering, mathematics, and technology fields and even met President Barack Obama during the 2015 White House Science Fair last March in Washington, DC. She had a lengthy discussion with the President about her extensive research on algae as a biofuel and as a wastewater treatment option.
There have been struggles along the way, but Sophia thanks her family for always being there for her. "All my problems seem impossibly small in hindsight. Skirmishes with the state education department, dealing with death, dealing with stress or hard times, moral dilemmas... It all pales. I am the luckiest person in the world to have been born into the Sanchez and Maes families. I could wish for no better relations. From fiercely supporting me, to fighting for me when need be, I've never had to be truly alone in any struggle, and for that I am truly grateful."
As far as her future goals and ambitions, she wants to make a real difference in the world. "In the future, I want to be doing what I love. Asking questions and then finding more questions en route to answers. The vicious cycle is my vigor. In the future, I would like to become a powerful force for innovation," she confirms. “There are so many wrongs in this world: poverty, injustice, cruelty -these I will do everything in my power to right, in whatever little way I am blessed with at the moment. I am more than a scientist, more than a mathematician -and I plan to develop that side of me. I love art, writing, music, reading -that's all another bit of who I am. I'm never going to leave that behind either."
As remarkable as it is to see the drive and self-motivation that one girl can have, I believe the world has only seen a small preview of what she is truly capable of. Sophia’s message for the youth of our generation is: “Be passionate, and be kind. Those two things will get you far. Above all, try and make the world better for having had you in it. I think Mother Teresa said it best: ‘Do small things with great love.’”