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A whiz in the classroom ... but so much more

SALT LAKE CITY — Kathy Liu is a 17-year-old whiz kid at West High School, and introductions are definitely in order.

In May, she won a $50,000 science-fair prize for inventing a better battery. She sports a weighted grade-point average of 4.7 with a heavy load of AP classes. She scored a perfect 36 on the ACT. In her free time, she follows tech and science pages on Facebook and enjoys watching TED talks. Ask her about her aspirations, she says: “I’m into interdisciplinary studies. I like technology. I’m leaning toward applied science. I want to see the technologies we develop get into the market. If it just sits there, it’s useless. It should help people.”

You probably think you’ve got her pegged now, but you don’t. She was once a budding gymnast. She ran cross-country until she injured a knee. She is a varsity tennis player, an all-state debate student, a National Merit Finalist and a student body officer. She has begun to study photography. She studied piano until she was in seventh grade and announced that she wanted to switch to the violin, which she had never attempted. Now she plays in the Utah Youth Symphony.

Surprised at the breadth of her interests?

“When you’re curious about knowledge, it doesn’t mean that’s all you do,” she explains. “It’s being open to learn something from everything.”

OK, is this girl really 17?

Shannon Wilson, head of the school’s International Baccalaureate program, gushes when Liu’s name is mentioned. “She could get lost in her achievements,” she says. “What makes her exceptional is that she is a remarkable human being, a lovely person.”

Wilson was overseeing a welcome-to-school party for 120 out-of-control ninth-graders outside the school when Liu, who happened to be passing by, asked her what was going on. After Wilson explained, Liu asked if she could help. She played capture the flag with the freshmen for the next 90 minutes.

“She is extraordinarily satisfied,” says Wilson. “She’s happy with life. She’s engaged in everything but not in a hyperactive, stressed out way. She does her best — which happens to be the best — but she’s not concerned with what others think. She is concerned for others.”

She mentions that Liu brings her gifts when she returns from her travels.

Says principal Paul Sagers: “(Liu) is one of the brightest students I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve been in this business a long time. … She has remarkable abilities, especially those in the realm of academic aptitude and leadership. However, what I admire about her most is her humility.”

For her part, Liu says, “I’ve liked challenging myself. What more can I do? It’s fun to be engaged in something challenging.”

Entering a conference room at West High, Liu meets a stranger and extends her hand, smiling widely and introducing herself. She is charming, humorous and articulate beyond her years. Her father came to the U.S. from China to study architecture at the University of Utah. Kathy was born in Utah and demonstrated an interest in just about everything. She was only 4 years old when she asked her mother if she could take piano lessons.

She had an epiphany when she was still in grade school and a power outage forced her family to live with friends for several days. “I realized energy is so important,” she recalls. She began researching renewable energy to prepare for debate competitions. As a high school student, while reading about new technologies, she decided to take the next step. As she tells it: “I thought, I could try this; I could try to make something applicable. I’m tired of reading about it. I wanted to do something. Add to the research.”

She decided to focus on batteries. Batteries use liquid to transfer electrical currents. This liquid is flammable and corrosive. Thick walls are required to safely enclose this liquid, which is why batteries are heavy. Liu performed research at home, at the University of Utah and in her high school chemistry class over the course of several months, searching for a substance that could replace the fluid.

“It took a lot of time, energy and patience,” says Liu’s mother, Joanne. “It was a really hard project, and she put in a lot of effort.”

Using natural sugars — “so it’s sustainable” — Liu created a viscous, putty-like substance that can transfer an electrical current but won’t leak, thus eliminating the need for thick, heavy walls. Not only did she create a safer, lighter battery, but she also improved its performance. The putty-like substance holds more energy than the liquid substance of standard batteries and can hold a full charge even after being recharged 1,000 times.

Last May, Liu’s project was awarded one of two $50,000 prizes at the Intel International Science and Engineer Fair in Phoenix. The fair is considered the world’s biggest science competition for high school students and included about 1,700 students from more than 75 countries.

“I was so surprised,” she says. “The caliber of the projects was really cool. Everyone was working on different things.”

Liu applied her new technology to the coin-size batteries used in watches and calculators, but she believes it could have broader applications. “If I can scale up my batteries in size, then they have the potential to be applied to car batteries,” she says. Liu is considering taking out a patent on the technology.

Meanwhile, she will finish her senior year at West and continue to pursue her many interests. At the science fair, she met similarly motivated students from around the country, and she has continued to interact with them via the Internet. “I was able to meet kids who are solving problems from all over the world,” she says.

Liu is considering applying to several universities, among them Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Princeton. “I’m keeping my options open,” she says. “There’s so much out there. I’m open to explore.”

Email: drob@deseretnews.com