The Team

We are excited to share a bit more about the team that is going to Colombia, and share stories of the wonderful people that are helping in various capacities.

The Team:

Leo Yao

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I am a rising senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, currently 16 years of age.

My first encounter with physics came at the beginning of 6th grade. By some stroke of luck, I was accepted onto the middle school Science Olympiad team, and I found myself increasingly entangled within the worlds of both math and science since then, fortuitously making the USAJMO in 7th grade, and suddenly vaulted onto the national stage for Science Olympiad in the same year, most likely due to the mindset that our Science Olympiad program instilled. However, my true introduction to astronomy was at the beginning of 9th grade, when I was persuaded to take up the event in Division C Science Olympiad due to a dearth of upperclassmen knowledgeable in the subject. Under the scrupulous mentoring of the senior captains, one of which was a former IOAA participant themselves, I gradually was able to master the fundamentals of astrophysics in tandem with my broadening interest in physics itself.

But not until last year was I advised to attempt the USAAAO exam. Though I still did the Astronomy event in Science Olympiad, I had done little targeted preparation prior to taking the first round. Making it to the second round was already a feat beyond my expectations, but along with that came more nuanced topics to study. I can recall looking at the syllabus sheet and being almost bewildered by the multitude of concepts to master; even now, I still look to solidify and deepen my understanding in each of them.

Though astronomy has now become my main focus, I still remain an aspiring, though not yet as successful, math and physics olympiad competitor. Outside of these continuing academic pursuits, I also devote my time towards playing the piano, writing bug-laden computer programs, and inadvertently perusing Wikipedia.

April Cheng

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I am a senior at Canyon Crest Academy, in San Diego, California, and will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. I’ve been interested in the cosmos since before I even went to school. Starting from space picture books, moving on to kids’ astronomy books, and finally to more advanced texts and documentaries, I was curious about astronomy all throughout my childhood to the present. My middle school’s Science Olympiad program was my first insight on the more astrophysical side of astronomy—the cosmic distance ladder, stellar spectra analysis, orbit determination methods from Newton’s laws of gravitation, astrophysical modeling—stories of not only what was out there, but also why and how. When I heard about the Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad, I was thrilled to be able to apply what I had learned to an even wider stage. I first participated in USAAAO in my freshman year, and qualified to the international team in my sophomore year. I’ve represented the United States at the IOAA in 2018 and 2019, and both competitions have been among my best memories in high school. I’m excited for IOAA 2020 and I look forward to meeting all my teammates! 

Outside of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad, I’m also involved in my school’s Astronomy Club, and was the head captain of CCA’s Science Olympiad team for the 2019-2020 season. In the future, I want to be a researcher in astronomy, astrophysics, or physics. I am immensely thankful to the Science Olympiad program for being the catalyst for my love for astrophysics, and also to the USAAAO and IOAA for giving me opportunities to learn, compete, and meet so many friends.

Academics aside, I love playing video games, reading, eating ice cream, and watching anime. 

William Huang

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I am a rising junior at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California. Like many before me, I’ve looked at the sky and wondered how I could have as much imagination and creativity as astronomers. Two stars make a line—that’s a dog. A bunch of stars over there—that’s a hunter hunting a bunny. Five stars making a little house—that’s not a house, that’s a person. But what started out as idle thoughts (about a teacup, a harp, two bears) became a curiosity, which with time kindled a passion for astrophysics. What motivates me to continue to learn is not the satisfaction of the questions I’ve answered, but a realization that the sky still holds many mysteries we have yet to comprehend. I guess you could say I’m starstruck, imagining the possibilities of the night sky that we will one day shed light upon. 

I’m very grateful for this opportunity to be a part of this team, and I look forward to participating at the IOAA.

Max Tan 

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I am a rising senior at Phillips Exeter Academy and am excited to be part of the main USA Astronomy and Astrophysics team.

Ever since I was little, I’ve been gazing up at the stars at night and wondering about the possibilities that space holds. How can we picture and imagine objects light years away? What life could possibly exist in the cosmos? The inability to answer these questions inspired me to start learning more about astronomy and begin my own mission to unravel these mysteries. In 7th grade, I started exploring astronomy and astrophysics through Science Olympiad events like Reach for the Stars, where I ventured into the intriguing process of identifying DSO’s, the evolutionary track of stars, and the orbital mechanics of binary systems. In high school, I launched Exeter’s Science Olympiad team. I continued to compete in Astronomy events while broadening my knowledge in physics through other activities. I have also been conducting astrophysics research on everything from solar wind geometry to mass transfer in triple body systems, leading me to begin connecting observations in far off galaxies with purely computerized simulations. 

Last year, I started participating in USAAAO because I wanted to apply what I’ve been learning about astronomy and astrophysics. I feel extremely fortunate and grateful to be a part of the main team of the USAAAO and am especially looking forward to working with everyone to have a successful competition in the fall.

I also am actively involved in debate, play the cello, and am a varsity tennis player. 

Sean Chen

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I am a graduating senior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, California. I’ve been interested in science since 5th grade, and my interest in physics and astrophysics was sparked by various science competitions in middle school. I was introduced to astronomy and astrophysics in Science Olympiad, and was exposed to physics in Science Bowl. Competitions in STEM throughout high school have given me many exciting and stimulating experiences and struggles, and I’m very thankful for USAAAO and IOAA for providing this great opportunity! I’m looking forward to learning more about astronomy and astrophysics and meeting everyone there!

I enjoy playing table tennis and badminton, and one of my favorite activities at school is competitively playing card games like fish. Watching/reading detective conan (and other anime/manga) is another activity I like, however my academic pursuits have led me to worry that the time I spend mentioning anime is going to exceed the amount of time I actually spend watching anime. Other hobbies include “magic” tricks, watching youtube, eating all kinds of (good) food, and facebook messenger games.

William Li 

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I’m a senior at King High School in Tampa, Florida. I’ll be starting at MIT in fall.

My first memorable astronomy experience was in fifth grade, with our phenomenal science teacher. At one point in the year, he set up an indoor planetarium—a classroom-sized inflated black fabric bag with tiny holes poked at where all the stars would be in the night sky. It was so incredibly cool.

Through the next six years, I did a lot of math and physics, because puzzles are cool and Nature is pretty. (I also started studying biology, for more . . . nuanced reasons.) The summer before my senior year, a few of my physics friends hyped me up about the USAAAO, and I decided to get my school registered. I’m super grateful for them and the chance to be on this team.

Jupiter Ding

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I’m a graduating senior from State College Area High School (a few minutes away from Penn State’s main campus) and I plan to study astrophysics at Princeton starting in the fall. 

I’d say my name is just a funny coincidence—my interest in astronomy began in middle school Science Olympiad, where I researched things like geysers on Enceladus and the Crab Nebula. In high school, I was amazed by all the major astronomical discoveries (ranging from the first exoplanet detection to the discovery of dark energy) that occurred only over the past few decades. I’m also grateful for the various opportunities at Penn State that have strengthened my interest in astronomy.

Outside of science, I enjoy playing the trombone, competing in quiz bowl, and watching football.

Jared Machtinger

Jared Machtinger

I am a rising senior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Illinois. 

I have been interested in science, especially physics and astronomy, for as long as I remember. When I was very young, my family obtained a Dobsonian telescope that we have used throughout the years to view the planets and several deep sky objects, as well as events like the 2012 Venus transit.

Throughout most of middle school, I was a very passive person and purposefully avoided competitions. However, that all changed when I decided to join my middle school’s Science Olympiad team in 8th grade and participated in the Reach for the Stars event. This was the first time I felt the joy of having motivation to actively study the subjects that interest me. That same year, I began volunteering at a nearby observatory that hosts public stargazing sessions. Both of these activities have greatly influenced me and I have stuck with them ever since.

Once in high school, I began preparing for several physics competitions and stumbled upon the USAAAO. Having made it to the second round for three years now, I am excited to be on the team and am very grateful to the USAAAO and IOAA for providing this opportunity.

Shion Murakawa 

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I am a rising senior at North Hollywood High School in North Hollywood, California. Although I had some interest in the cosmos since childhood, I was properly introduced to the field as a freshman in my school’s Science Olympiad club. There, I was mentored by a former IOAA team member and I started learning about the wonders of the stars–what they are, how they form, and how they die. The complexity of these astronomical mechanisms drew me in, often taking me into hours-long sessions of reading and solving problems. However, after not being able to make it even past the first round of USAAAO last year, I was determined to improve. Eventually, as a junior, I was able to get first in astronomy at a Science Olympiad competition; I was ecstatic that I was able to win without any help. I distinctly remember the feeling of joy and satisfaction to have my efforts rewarded. This feeling, along with my curiosity, fueled my drive to study–eventually allowing me to have an opportunity like this. 

Other than astronomy, I enjoy producing music, playing the piano, and watching anime. I also run cross country and am a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. 

Adithya Balachandran 

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I am a rising senior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. 

My journey into astrophysics began with my early interest and passion for mathematics. I was able to seek out mathematical challenges outside of school and learn many new concepts by participating in competitions. As a USAJMO winner last year, I was invited to attend the Mathematical Olympiad Program which was a truly extraordinary and enriching experience. Prior to high school, I also started developing a keen interest in physics which allowed me to experience the elegance and power of mathematics in explaining natural phenomena. I qualified for the USA Physics Olympiad in my freshman, sophomore, and junior years and won a gold medal last year. 

It was my avid interest in science fiction and fantasy movies that introduced me to the wonders of the cosmos and sparked my curiosity. Watching movies such as Star Wars and Interstellar, I grew fascinated with the vastness of space and how little we know about the mysteries of the universe. It wasn’t until I learned physics that I began to truly appreciate the concepts of space and time, gravitational fields, and black holes. Building on the fundamentals of classical mechanics and geometry, I started learning the basics of astrophysics including celestial mechanics and spherical trigonometry. This year, I decided to try the National Astronomy Competition and was delighted to find out that I earned a spot on the US team for the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to learn more about astronomy and astrophysics and meet other math and physics enthusiasts! 

Outside of academics, I enjoy playing tennis, playing the piano and saxophone, and volunteering as a mathematics and physics tutor. I have also earned a first degree black belt in Taekwondo.


Team Leaders

Taddeus Komacek 

Thaddeus Komacek
University of Arizona, Tucson

Tad is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago whose research focuses on exoplanet atmospheres. Tad was the 2013 team leader and has been helping organize and coach the US Astronomy Team yearly since then.

Sandesh Kalantre

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Hey folks! I am a PhD student in physics at the University of Maryland – College Park and am one of the team leaders for team USA at IOAA 2020. I grew up in India and obtained my bachelors in Engineering Physics from IIT Bombay in India. 

I picked up an acute interest in science in my middle and high school years and have never looked back since. I participated in astronomy olympiads representing India and went to the International Astronomy Olympiad (IAO) in 2011 and International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA) in 2012 and 2013. Participating in the olympiads introduced me to the possibility of pursuing a career in science and it was instrumental in connecting me to a wide network of people for research and career advice. I felt at home being in the presence of similar minded people at my age during the olympiads and some of those friendships stayed over the years. In my opinion, every young person should be free to pursue science that they like as a career, and the olympiads are conducive in providing a path forward. Wanting to give back, I was involved with selection and training of the Indian team from 2015-2018, and after starting my graduate studies in the US, have been part of the USAAAO organization. 

When not doing research at super-low temperatures or designing intriguing problems in astronomy and astrophysics, you can find me heading out for a long bike ride, enjoying a good book or scratching out a pleasant tune on my violin.


Coaching Team:

Besides the team leaders, we have 5 more coaches this summer. Here are some of their stories.

Natasa Dragovic

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I am a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin. I was one of the team leaders and coaches of the team USA at IOAA in 2018 and 2019. I was born and raised in Serbia, and later I came for college to MIT where I studied math.

During middle school and high school, I competed for Serbia at four International Astronomy Olympiads (IAO) and one International Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad (IOAA). A big part of success of our team was due to many teachers that helped us prepare. In particular, a retired physics teacher, prof. Ratomirka Miler, gave a lot of her time and was the major driving force. I hope that I can pass on some of the knowledge I gained then to the team.

I think that science olympiads are great for students to learn more advanced curriculum at young age, meet people from all over the world with similar interests and make lasting friendships.

Despite not studying astronomy any more, I enjoy being involved with the competition and helping students prepare. Besides USAAAO, I was involved in organizing the Directed Reading Program in my department. We pair undergraduate students that are passionate about math related topics with a graduate student in order to read a book during a semester and learn a new topic (https://www.drp-network.org/).

Lucas Pinheiro

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My name is Lucas, I am 19 years old, and I was born and raised in Marília, a small city in Brazil. Currently, I am studying electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

When I was in the 9th grade, I started participating in science competitions. I absolutely loved participating in these competitions, and they eventually became my main extracurricular activity. I enjoyed spending many hours trying to solve difficult problems. It was extremely satisfying to understand complex concepts or to get the right answer for a hard question after struggling for a lot of time. Although I participated in competitions related to many subjects, such as physics, math, chemistry, and robotics, I focused more on astronomy and astrophysics. In 2018, I was part of the team that represented Brazil in the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA), which was one of the best experiences of my life. I got a bronze medal on IOAA.

Even after I graduated from high school, I remained involved with astronomy and with science competitions. I am volunteering at both USAAAO and the Brazilian Astronomy and Astronautics Olympiad. I am also doing research in astrophysics. My
research project involves low-metallicity stars and data analysis.

Vlad Rosca

Katarine Emanuela Klitzke

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Hi everyone, my name is Katarine, I am 19 years old, I was born in Timbó, a very small city in south Brazil and currently I am an undergrad student in computer engineering and astrophysics at Georgia Tech.  

 In my 6th grade I started participating in math competitions and loved this world of olympiads. Being frequently challenged by problems and ideas trying to find a solution and reaching new knowledge, created a new passion in my life. From my 6th to 12th grade I participated in many different competitions (math, physics, biology, chemistry, science, logic, geography, informatic, robotics,linguistics …), however, it was the astronomy one that I enjoyed studying the most. During my 12th grade I had the opportunity to represent Brazil at international olympiads on astronomy, astrophysics and aeronautics.  Besides all the knowledge, the science olympiads gave me amazing friendships and good memories.

Since I graduated from high school, I have continued to get involved with astronomy. I am volunteering at both USAAAO and the Brazilian Astronomy and Astronautics Olympiad, and  developing my own research project in computational cosmology.

Nima Chartab Soltani

Other Volunteers:

A lot goes into organizing USAAAO besides the trainings and we would not be able to function without our amazing volunteers. 

Ioana Zelko: Chairperson 

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I am a PhD researcher in astrophysics at Harvard University. I am originally from Romania, and I came to the USA in college to pursue a physics degree at MIT. During my time in high school in Romania, I participated in many international science competitions, like IPhO, IOA, IJSO, and most importantly, two editions of the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The olympiads meant a lot to me, on personal and professional level. They gave me the chance to pursue a rigorous training in science, and to connect with many peers with similar interests. Eventually, they ended up informing my career choice.
I find passion in teaching and learning, and I appreciate the chance of doing both of them at the side of the USA national astronomy and astrophysics olympiad team, as a coach and team leader. Organizing the selection and training the team is a hard but rewarding process.
In my day to day life I spend time working on research, and a couple of other projects. During my time at MIT, my research focused on building a interferometer telescope. You can see a video of the result here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGK7t__mTRc. Now, during my PhD, I am looking at interstellar dust. Aside from research, together with three friends, I started the project PhysicsDen (https://www.physicsden.org/), a website that hosts physics problems related to published research, in attempt to bridge the gab between class material and research. Check us out!

Sahil Pontula

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I was first exposed to astronomy in elementary school at an outdoor observing session with the Raleigh Astronomy Club. Since then, I have been drawn to exploring the universe through astrophysics, an interest that has been compounded by competitions such as Science Olympiad and NAO/IOAA. Diverse math and science programs such as RSI have exposed me to an international, collaborative community that I aspire to be a part of as I begin the next part of my educational journey at MIT in the fall. From reading about recent research towards a successful theory of quantum gravity to starting a hobby in astrophotography, my passion for astrophysics stays with me, and I look forward to continue sharing this passion with the USAAAO community as a volunteer.