When you were in high school, odds are you weren’t engaged in university level research seeking to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

It is also unlikely you authored a graduate-level paper that explores the intersection of artificial intelligence, robotics and neuroscience that was submitted to an international conference in Singapore.

Skyline High School student Aaron Wang, who has yet to be awarded his high school diploma, has done both of those things — and more.

On Wednesday, the high school senior, who is a paid research assistant with the University of Utah NeuroRobotics Lab, added another title to his impressive vitae: General Sterling Scholar winner of the 2023 Deseret News/KSL Sterling Scholar Program. He also won the top prize in the scholarship program’s computer science category.

Wang appeared stunned as his name was announced.

“I wasn’t really expecting it, for sure,” he said, explaining that he knows some of the other top scholars recognized by the program, who also have impressive backgrounds.

“With so many other qualified winners, I was really surprised that I won,” he said.

Jacob George, director of the Utah NeuroRobotics Lab, said Wang is “exceptionally hardworking. He’s very motivated and he’s just naturally quick.”

George said Wang “has got a lot of initiative, drive and curiosity, which are some of the three characteristics that really make a great scientist and a great engineer — someone who can identify the problems worth solving and know how to solve those.”

Wang, who works alongside graduate students at the university lab, has focused on the creation of a wristband that will enable people with neuromuscular disabilities to control smart devices with hand gestures.

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He also co-authored a paper in the Journal of Intelligent Transportation Systems that was presented to the Transportation Research Board. He took second place in computer science at the 2022 Utah Science and Engineering Fair and helped establish an ambassador program to increase participation in the fair.

Wang was among 14 finalists who were selected by their Wasatch Front high schools and advanced through progressive rounds of judging.

The final round, conducted at Hillcrest High School in Midvale on Feb. 23, culminated with Wednesday’s award ceremony at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Bountiful Regional Center in North Salt Lake.

Sterling Scholars: Here are Utah’s 2023 semifinalists

Students from high schools along the Wasatch Front compete in 14 categories. Winners and runners up are selected in each category and the top award of General Sterling Scholar is awarded among the winners of each category, winnowed down from 168 scholars.

The categories include business and marketing; computer technology; dance; English; family and consumer sciences; instrumental music; mathematics; science; skilled and technical sciences education; social science; speech/theater arts/forensics; visual arts; vocal performance and world languages.

Aside from their academic achievements, many Sterling Scholar winners make significant contributions to their schools and communities.

West High School’s Divya Sundar, center, is awarded with the Skilled & Technical Sciences Education award during the 2023 Sterling Scholar awards ceremony in North Salt Lake on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Melia Funes of Timpanogos High, left, and Reagan Manwaring of Brighton High, right, were awarded as runner-up. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

West High School’s Divya Sundar, selected top scholar in skilled and technical sciences, began working in a hematology lab at age 13, a natural extension of her curiosity about the human body and medical science.

She presented an abstract at the American Society of Hematology conference and was awarded the 2022 Abstract Achievement Award. She worked on a project regarding a gene mutation responsible for a disease in a family member.

Sundar also volunteers with the Kids Crew at Primary Children’s Hospital and is a student leader in Tutors of West High.

“My curiosity for medicine began when I learned how to trace a drop of blood through the cardiovascular system. I was fascinated by how intricately categorized the human body was. It wasn’t until I learned about the brain and its myriad functions that I fell in love with the medical sciences,” she wrote.

Nevaeh Parker, selected the top scholar in the speech, theater arts and forensics category, wants to become a lawyer. In 2022, she competed in the national speech and debate tournament and is president of Roy High School’s debate team. She is also student body president, organized a Black Student Union and serves on the Roy City Youth Council.

“As a young child, my mother encouraged me to use my voice, and that if I saw a need, to take action. ... Words have an impact, and I believe that when an individual is given a platform to speak, that they should use it to help,” Parker wrote in her portfolio.

The Sterling Scholar program encourages academic excellence by awarding scholarships and publicly recognizing some of Utah’s top high school seniors.

Nominees were judged for their academic achievements, leadership and service to their communities.

Sterling Scholar winners receive $2,500 scholarships, and runners-up earn $1,000 each, which are awarded by the Deseret News and KSL.

As the General Sterling Scholar, Wang receives an additional $2,500 scholarship.

The winners also are eligible for renewable scholarships and tuition waivers at a number of Utah colleges and universities.

Prior to awarding the General Sterling Scholar award, Keith B. McMullin, president and CEO of Deseret Management Corporation, remarked that the students who participate in the recognition program represent the best attribute of the nation.

“This has been an incredible evening, and of all the events that I had the privilege of attending during the course of the year, I have to confess this is always my favorite,” he said.

The Sterling Scholar program also features the Gail Miller Community Service Award. This year’s winner is London Amado of Green Canyon High School in North Logan, who was awarded a $2,000 scholarship.

Amado has tutored students with intellectual disabilities and read to more than 650 students at 18 schools.

“Serving others brings me joy, and I found that throughout the week I would look forward to the time I would spend in the classroom with my partner,” she wrote in her portfolio.

She also assembled 300 STEM kits for disadvantaged students and mentored a FIRST Lego League Explore Team, a STEM program for kids ages 4-6.

In addition to the community service award, the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation is a generous sponsor of scholarships awarded by Sterling Scholar programs across Utah.

Timpview High School’s Eliza Jenkins accepts the Philo T. Farnsworth Governor’s Award during the 2023 Sterling Scholar awards ceremony in North Salt Lake on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Timpview High School student Eliza Jenkins was the winner of the Philo T. Farnsworth Governor’s Award, which celebrates innovation. The award is named for Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of the vacuum tube, who is considered the “father of television.” Farnsworth was born in a log cabin near Beaver. The award includes a $1,000 scholarship.

Jenkins is a fabrication technician at a manufacturing company in Provo. She has entry-level Career And Technical Education certificates in woods, welding, automotive and construction trades.

She is the mechanical lead for her school’s robotics team, which won the 2022 Utah regional and qualified for the world championships. Jenkins is a National Merit semifinalist and attended Engineering State at Utah State University.