Like many kids, Maya Wallach went through a dinosaur phase when she was very young.
“She used to ask us so many questions about dinosaurs,” said Maya’s mom, Kenya Wallach.
“Eventually, I got tired of her asking questions about dinosaurs and decided it was time for her to learn how to research. 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.”
Wallach said that habit sparked a love of learning in her daughter.
“She realized, ‘Oh, I can learn whatever it is I want to learn,’” Wallach said.
That drive to learn has propelled Maya to finish high school early and enroll at Michigan State University, where she is a sophomore studying experimental physics. She recently turned 16.
“She’s in thermodynamics right now,” said Wallach, consulting her daughter’s class schedule on a recent Monday.
Wallach and her husband Adam, both former employees of Stafford County Public Schools who now work on Discovery Education’s digital curriculum team, said it’s been their practice to “go all in” whenever any of their three children express an interest in something.
They seek out camps, go on field trips, consult their networks for subject matter experts and find internship opportunities.
Maya’s interests took her from dinosaurs to robotics to coding to quantum physics and finally to nuclear physics.
“There was chemistry in there, too,” Maya’s dad Adam Wallach said. “We have a video of her doing an ode to hydrogen that she wrote herself. At the end she had a little tear, because hydrogen is so lonely [placed by itself at the top of the periodic table].”
Kenya Wallach was supervisor of mathematics and science for Stafford County Public Schools—which her other two children still attend—and now directs Discovery’s mathematics curriculum, so she was able to guide her daughter much of the way along her journey into STEM.
“I don’t give my kids answers,” Wallach said. “I will give you bits and pieces 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.”
But once Maya expressed an interest in nuclear physics and was starting to build simulations using the Python programming language, Wallach knew she had to look elsewhere for support.
“Mom is benched now,” she said with a laugh.
The Wallachs got connected with the National Society of Black Engineers and went to a meeting of the organization at Virginia Union University. There they met Paul Gueye, a professor of experimental physics at Michigan State University.
After talking with Maya and looking at some of her publications on GitHub, a software developing platform, Gueye offered her an internship at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a nuclear science research facility at Michigan State.
Before he offered her the internship, Gueye gave Maya—who was 14 and had just completed her freshman year at Stafford High School—some physics problems that he usually gives to college sophomores.
“Maya was able to answer them without assistance,” Kenya Wallach 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.’ “
It was 2020, and Maya was looking at a year of virtual high school due to the pandemic. She already had enough credits from advanced classes to be recognized as a high school senior, so the Wallachs homeschooled her for that year while she also took 13 college credits at Michigan State.
Recently, Maya moved to the Michigan State campus to start her sophomore year of college.
The Wallachs, who are a biracial Jewish family, said Maya has faced her share of discrimination in her academic career so far, from feeling unwelcome by boys in the middle school robotics team to being told she doesn’t belong in advanced math classes.
“There are a lot of things people can pinpoint and say, ‘We don’t like you because this or that,’ ” Kenya Wallach said.
But they have tried to teach Maya to use her knowledge to escape whatever barriers others want to put before her.
“What she has learned is that it doesn’t matter what people think, because what matters is your knowledge base,” Adam Wallach said. “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.”
On Monday, Maya will start a second internship with Los Alamos National Laboratory, the government agency working on scientific solutions to national security challenges.
She will do that on top of her work at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, her college classes and the drum playing and video gaming she does to relax.
“Don’t try to stop me,” the Wallachs said she told them.