14-year-old Texas girl, NASA intern about to graduate college – USA TODAY

Alena McQuarter isn’t like other teenagers.
She graduated from high school at 12 years old, made national headlines as the youngest person to intern at NASA and is the youngest Black person to get accepted to medical school.
Now, she’s just a few months away from graduating from college at the age of 14.
And somehow, the native Texan and teenage prodigy had time to start the Brown STEMGirl, an organization for girls of color who want to study science, technology, engineering and math.
“I’ve always tried to prove that girls of color … they can do what they put their minds to,” she told USA TODAY last week. “Being able to graduate at the age of 12 from high school and going into college, I just want to inspire other girls to follow their dreams.”
Alena is a senior at Arizona State University and will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical biological sciences with a minor in global health. In May, she is expected to graduate with a master’s in biological sciences.
“From the age of 5, 4, around there, I’ve just been in love with science,” she told USA TODAY. “And I love the stars.”
Growing up, Alena’s mother took her to NASA every summer, as well as astronomy events at night.
In 2021, Alena got to intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” she said. “Being able to go to JPL and really see what they’re working on when it comes to rovers and rockets and things that they’re sending up to space and Mars, it was nice.”
Alena initially wanted to be an engineer, but after taking an engineering class, she realized it wasn’t for her. She kept looking and soon realized she’d rather pursue biological sciences.
She has been admitted to the University of Alabama’s Heersink School of Medicine to pursue a medical degree, but she’s more interested in research, she said. She plans to apply elsewhere to pursue a doctorate and study viral immunology with a focus on infectious diseases. 
She’ll start applying this fall, she said.
“In the future, I want to look into health care and underrepresented communities,” she said. “I just want to learn more and be able to develop different things to help … increase health care in underrepresented communities and advocate for people.”
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Alena said she works hard to inspire others in part after being discouraged by an adult in her life.
She said she was in the fifth grade when her school principal, another person of color, told her young girls of color can’t get good grades or pass state tests.
“It did kind of hurt because I worked hard to get the grades that I got,” she said. “Someone comes and tells you, ‘You can’t do this because you’re too young or you’re a girl of color.’ I really wanted to show her that I can get good grades and I can go on and do amazing things. So I’m proving that.”
Alena said college life has been fun. She has participated in all sorts of programs, including one that helped her learn about the border and immigration. 
She spends her free time playing sports, swimming and singing. She loves jazz and pop, she said.
She was able to take her love for music with her when she was 9 years old and living in Jordan.
“My mom gave me the opportunity,” she said. “We went out there, and I got involved in some of the refugee camps. Being able to teach the kids living there music and reading, things like that, was really nice.”
They took trips to the desert and rode camels, which was “cool and scary,” she laughed.
“We went down to the Dead Sea,” she said. “It’s kind of breathtaking.”
Tonya Webb, Alena’s mentor and an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the teen is “a real inspiration.”
She’s bright, bubbly and laughs a lot, said Webb, who mentored Alena during the university’s annual American Cancer Society Diversity in Cancer Research summer internship, which ended this month. The program allows underrepresented students interested in biomedical careers the opportunity to learn in a lab and conduct cancer research.
“She contributed to the lab, the atmosphere,” Webb told USA TODAY. “Everyone’s in there working but she’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ That excitement and enthusiasm and the questions. The lab ended up treating her like their younger sibling.”
She said Alena can do anything she wants in the future.
“If she wants to work on a vaccine, it’s great for the field,” Webb said. “I think that she could solve many questions that we have. … She could (use) her life experiences and her ingenuity and problem-solving skills and help us develop creative solutions to these issues.”
One project Alena got to work on during her internship involved ovarian cancer, considered one of the deadliest cancers for women. 
“She didn’t know so much about it,” Webb said. “She read papers and presented papers, and her product was focused on using natural compounds, things that are found in herbal remedies … things that are found in licorice, green tea, ginseng.”
She said it was amazing that the teenager was able to come into the field with so little experience and present her findings after just a few months.
Alena’s mother, Daphne McQuarter, partly credits the hands-on internship with a lot of the opportunities her daughter is getting.
“Without them providing that opportunity for her, she … wouldn’t be here right now,” she said.
Though the world appears to be her daughter’s oyster, McQuarter said she’s glad the teen has lots of time to figure out what her future will look like.
“My only desire for her is that whatever she does, she’s happy,” she said. “If you’re not happy, as I always tell her, jump off the train. It’s not going to be fulfilling to you if you’re not happy.
“She can do whatever she wants,” she continued. “She’s Alena.”
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