Samantha Taylor, Madison Hahamy, Srilalana Appasani, Chandra Gangavarapu

1. “We make plans, God laughs” — Blackbox Founder

In order to kick-off my new series, Student Heroes, I interviewed Blackbox Founder Samantha Taylor, and she had a lot to say about her project, aiming to help out the African American community.

Who are you?

I am Samantha Taylor. Currently class of ’21 at Illinois Mathematics & Science Academy. I am a 16 year old half-Jamaican American. On my better days, I am an energetic and extremely social individual. It may be the Leo in me but I love the spotlight and really any opportunity I have to speak my truth. I value deep thought whether it be in introspection or observations of the people and world around me. While I value deep thinking because it allows me to understand myself, peers, and nature beyond the surface level, it can often cause discomfort. And so, I work to find the balance between deep thoughts, mental clarity, and understanding that we are not what we think.

A lot of what has moulded my values and built me into the person I am today was my early exposure to the interviews of trailblazers such as Tupac Shakur, Malcolm X, MLK, and so many more. I recall absorbing and reflecting on what they were saying. I admired how raw and authentic they were, and I work every day to do the same. Whenever I speak I want it to be 100% honest and real even if it makes people uncomfortable. I have to speak my truth because nobody else can ever do it for me. My favorite quote of all time is when Tupac famously stated;

“We might not be the one, but let’s not be selfish and because we are not gonna change the world, let’s not talk about how we should change it. I don’t know how to change it, but I know if I keep talking about how dirty it is out here, somebody’s gonna clean it up.”

This statement has always resonated within me. It has taught me the importance of speaking up for myself and for those who don’t have the platform or the privilege to do the same. It has taught me to listen to other people because there is untold beauty in stories and experiences that we cannot find anywhere else.

Why did you start Blackbox?

I started Blackbox because I was always on a search for a platform to publish my writing on and many of my peers were in the same boat. And perhaps one of my biggest lessons being a part of marginalized communities is that you often have to create your own spaces. The power of art is very underestimated. Art is an outlet to express feelings that one may have difficulty verbalizing and creates another form of communication. By tapping into our senses, whether that be sight, touch, or hearing we are able to directly communicate our thoughts, experiences, emotions, anything truly.

But in many ways, it acts as a liaison between the creator and the audience. I’ve always used poetry and paintings as a form of activism, to express my culture and experiences. What I found meaningful about creating a platform for Black art was that it was a space to showcase how diverse the Black community is and building comfort and knowing that we are not alone in many of our experiences. But also for those who are not a part of the Black community, it is a space and opportunity to become more culturally literate and understanding of communities that you are not a part of.

How did you choose your team?

There wasn’t exactly certain criteria. I remember the initial creation and first publishing of the Blackbox website was done independently. It took me way longer than necessary to debut the platform, but I was doing it all on my own and still having to manage schoolwork and extracurriculars among other things. I remember thinking to myself, “man there is no way I can do this all on my own”. But from that point on I began my first effort of building a team.

I first started by sending out forms and gathered a total of 30+ responses of individuals who were interested. The next step for me was to create a slack and had about 10 active members of the team, but the problem was that I attended IMSA, a residential high school, and many of my team members were unable to have face to face meetings. Sadly, I trashed that idea but began seeking interested individuals on my campus and soon enough I had a team of 7 members who I was able to meet with weekly. I sought individuals who had a bigger vision for blackbox and were willing to put the effort in to grow the platform. The entire process of building the Blackbox and choosing a team was trial and error. Surprisingly, I knew absolutely nothing about how to run a business/service and learned something new every step of the way.

What is the future of Blackbox?

This has always been a hard question for me. You know the quote, “We make plans, God laughs” … it is kinda like that. I am very much a “live in the now” type of person, go with the flow, and your hard work will take you exactly where you need to be. Hopefully, we are able to gain more recognition, emerge back from our hiatus, and produce quality content. I want to collaborate with different organizations to raise money and awareness for the social and economic inequities within this country. On top of this, I want to continue to celebrate culture, as it keeps us all connected in one way or another. I have overarching goals I want to accomplish, but I believe the opportunities and potential are limitless.

Are you working on any current projects?

Yes, fortunately I am. I am currently working on curating op-eds surrounding the painful murder Ahmaud Arbery. I’ve recently created a petition that now has over 11.47k signatures and I will be emailing and mailing them to state reps and to the Liberty County Attorney to ensure that Gregory and Travis McMichael and all accomplices are convicted and that policies are implemented to prevent this from happening again.

I am also working on a jewelry store known as Shimmr, that is focused on bringing cheap jewelry to people all around the world.

Do you have a message for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Never underestimate the power of entrepreneurship. I remember one year ago I was telling myself that I absolutely would never be an entrepreneur, now I am looking for any way to the exact opposite. Entrepreneurs allow the world to progress and advance in the forward direction. You have to take risks, you have to be able to put yourself out there, and embrace that you will fail. That concept of failing is what pushed me and so many people away from entrepreneurship, but the best rewards only come when you leave your comfort zone and the box that you have confined yourself in. There is no better time than now. Invest in yourself and your future.

2. “Innovation: The Fruit of Experience” — TrAIner Founder

In this second article in my series Student Heroes, I interviewed TrAiner Founder Yash Thacker, and he gave us a tour behind the scenes of his company.

Who are you?

Hi! My name is Yash Thacker, I recently graduated from Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) as a dual degree student. I received a degree in Biology and a minor in math from Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU) and just finished my degree in CS and minor in bioinformatics from WashU. You may be thinking, interesting combo why such different fields, well … to answer that question I have to jump back to my time at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA).

Before IMSA I had always wanted to be a doctor, however, an opportunity I had to do research at Northwestern University exposed me to the application of computer science to research. I got insight into how powerful a tool programming can be for high through put and for automation, and I became hooked. By senior year I had built my own computer and was taking a few programming classes, however my passion for biology and medicine was strong as ever and I decided I wanted to do both. Outside of school my hobbies include, watching football, playing tennis and learning about new technologies. I watch Linus tech tips, Jay’s2Cents and other YouTubers with a die-hard passion. When I am not stuck in a YouTube blackhole, I really enjoy doing research. I try to constantly be connected with it to continue to develop my skills in scientific inquiry as well as keeping up to date with the most popular topics.

There are a few different things that have built the foundation for my ideologies. My father taught me that education is one of the most important things you can invest in, and my mother taught me about compassion. Additionally, my ever-growing love for science has led me to always ask the question “Why?”. I am a firm believer that your experiences drive your passions, and that has guided me throughout my life. My experiences have played a fundamental role in my choices in higher education, the projects I have done and will continue to mold my future. They have also taught me that I should not expect others to hand me anything; I need to take the initiative to create my own opportunities. Overall, I want to apply computer science to research in the medical field. Whether that involves building medical devices or going out and doing research, I am exploring every opportunity I get to find my niche.


Why did you start TrAIner?

TrAIner started when I learned about the Random Forest Classifier in a lab for a Computer Securities class I was taking. We were learning how to use the accelerometer on a phone to determine exactly what key a user had typed on a keyboard. It occurred to me that maybe we could use a similar technique to determine if people were doing their exercises correctly.

One of the most important things about health care, for me, is patient engagement and accessibility of treatment to everyone. My experiences volunteering in the ER department in a hospital where I saw many patients return due to not following doctors’ recommendations or not understanding what the doctor had suggested led to the thought of creating a device where users could be told if they are doing exercises correctly and give them feedback. In fact, I had firsthand experience of this when I was on the swim team in high school. I had some issues with my shoulders and the trainer had advised me to do some exercises to help fix it, however I did not listen, and it resulted in issues later. Hence, I spent some time doing research on the issue and found out that patients remember less than 50% of what doctors tell them and nearly 50% of patients do not follow through with their PT recommended exercises outside of the hospital setting. I decided that there was definitely a need for something that would help keep patients accountable for their therapy, but also provide them with a reason to do it. TrAIner is the result of many different experiences, and I wanted to design it as a product that would be easily accessible to everyone to utilize at a low cost.

What qualities do you look for you in your team?

I had participated in WashU’s healthcare incubator, Sling Health, during my first year at WashU as a team member, and it taught me a lot of lessons about guiding a team. One of the foremost lessons was designing a team so they could balance out skills. So, when I created my team for trAIner, I designed my team to have people that I knew I would work well with but would also balance out my qualities and skills. My knowledge and skill set helped me know a lot about the problem as well as how to tackle it using computer science tools, however I did not have as much knowledge about AI, the marketing aspect, as well as hardware. I also knew that if I was going to lead the team, I would not be able to do as much as I wanted with actually building the device and coding. With that in mind, brought in Alex Appel, and Dan Appel, both of whom had great experience working in iOS and making apps. I also brought in Connor Browder who had experience in CS as well as Marketing and business and also had done some work in the physical therapy area. I sought out people who had skills that could help the team in a multitude of ways, but my primary requirement was passion to see the project through.

What is the future outlook for TrAIner?

TrAIner was created in the fall of 2020, so with the COVID situation quite a bit of our work was cut short due to remote classes, which resulted in the team splitting up when we went back to our respective homes. We had a chance to get back on track recently and work on it over the summer. Currently we are working to determine the best set of data for collection, specifically which type of data is best for training a machine learning model. In the future our goal is to train a model with a large data set and see how effective it is at analyzing multiple reps of a person and classifying how good the rep was. We additionally want to decrease the cost of the device the user wears and make it easy for them to put it on in the correct place.

Is there an entrepreneur you look up to, and if so, why?

There is not one particular entrepreneur that I look up to, but I like to take qualities of many different entrepreneurs. Some of them include Steve Jobs, Elon Musk Francis deSouza, as well as Andrew Carnegie. For starters Steve Jobs revolutionized computing in general, through Apple he made personal computers accessible as well as gave rise to the smartphone. I look up to him because he used his company to create products that increased accessibility and fundamentally changed the face of technology with the creation of the smartphone industry.

His company not only created jobs in its own sector it led to the creation of new fields, and investment in mobile processing. With that I would say I also just loved the finesse with which he popularized Apple and pushed the boundaries of innovation with new technologies. Elon Musk is on this list for his dedication, he is quirky, but he has built his companies from the ground up and has put significant effort into them. He repeatedly invests the money he gets from one company back into the company or uses it to start another one. His dedication shows through his work and the fact that he slept in the Gigafactory during the production of the model 3. Francis deSouza is a new one on the list and probably not as well known to everyone, he is the CEO of Illumina. He has played a pivotal a role in making Illumina’s technology cheaper and more accessible to current researchers. The breakthroughs that Illumina has done for sequencing, and its current work with decreasing the cost of genomic sequencing will revolutionize medicine forever. It will lead to diagnosis and treatments that are tailored to the individual. Lastly is Andrew Carnegie, is on here for his philanthropy, he said “the man who dies rich dies disgraced.” All of these entrepreneurs have qualities I hope to attain, and like them I want to leave something behind that changes the face of an industry.

What was the most important part in starting TrAIner?

One of the most difficult tasks was defining the problem, and we are still working on it to this day. During the infant stages of participating in WashU’s incubator Sling Health, we were told that the fundamental components of creating a startup is not the solution but defining what problem we want to solve. My team and I have narrowed down the scope of what we initially want to tackle, but it is still evolving as we work. Additionally, I think the other difficult part, for me, was learning how to adapt to the new situation that COVID-19. After everyone had left to go home due to classes being online, working collectively on TrAIner became significantly harder, but my passion for the project drove me to want to continue working on it. I wanted to be able to push the team to continue working. After I did some reflection on the additional stress it may put on some of them, I concluded that the project should not add to it. So, we designed a plan to continue working on the project as much as possible, and then go more in depth once we have more time this summer. Learning to create a balance between the happiness of the team and my dedication to bring the product to fruition was challenging, but important for me to grow as a leader.

3. “Truth to Power” — Madison Hahamy

In this third article in my new series Student Heroes, I interviewed one of the journalists of the “Since Parkland” project, and she explained some of her reasons and thought processes.

Who are you?

My name is Madison Hahamy, and I’m a rising sophomore at Yale University. I’m currently undecided as to my major, but I want to concentrate in something law, politics, and writing.


Madison Hahamy

Why did you join the “Since Parkland” project?

Student journalists who worked on the project actually didn’t know what exactly we were doing until more than halfway through, and we didn’t see how everything tied together until the very end. What I knew when I applied to join was that I would be working on a project related to gun violence affecting children and teens. I am really privileged in that school shootings were primarily what motivated me to care about gun violence prevention activism, but for many, especially black and brown children and teens, they are affected daily by mass shootings that don’t get nearly as much media coverage, if any. This project sought to profile every single person affected, and so I hoped that we would be able to combat some of the media discrimination in relation to the gun violence experienced by these communities. Here is the website: https://sinceparkland.org/

What has been the most rewarding experience in working on the project?

I had a conversation with the sister of a boy killed by gun violence, who wasn’t named correctly in media reports. It took me months to finally find him and, when I talked to her, she told me that me getting in contact with her and writing about her brother this was a sign that he was okay and looking down on her. I think about that conversation daily.

How did you get into activism?

I don’t honestly know if I would consider what I do activism. There is a lot of loaded meaning behind that word and I’m not sure that I associate myself with it. I think that journalism can and should serve as an impetus for change, and I think that, currently, that’s what I want to do with my life. I’ve always loved to write, but it was a high school freshman English teacher who convinced me that words were worth more out in the world than in a journal under my bed. That’s when I started writing for publications and actually getting my voice out. And as I started writing and telling stories, I started learning more and more about the world and my privilege and preconceived notions, which only made me want to write even more.

Are you working on any projects right now?

Since Parkland officially ended during the first semester of this year, and since then I’ve been writing and editing with on-campus publications, reporting on university happenings as well as writing opinion pieces and more long-form cover stories. This summer, I’ll be interning with a community organizing group called Citizen Action, and I’m excited to see how writing can intersect with more grassroots organizing and lobbying.

Who has been your biggest inspiration and why?

Cliche answer, but my mom. She’s a lawyer and always represents the little guy. She’s the one who taught me the phrase, “truth to power.” I’m always afraid that, as I grow older, I’m going to lose myself and my morals and enter a career in which I accumulate power at the expense of others, and she never did that. I want to be like her.


4. “See the Good” — KisimuKrafts Founder

In this fourth article in my new series Student Heroes, I interviewed the founder of KisimuKrafts, and we take a journey through her reasons and journey with the company.

Who are you?

My name is Sri Lalana Appasani. I am currently a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy as a part of the Class of 2021. I proudly identify myself as an Indian American and I am grateful that I am so in touch with my culture. I was actually born in India and my family moved here when I was 3 years old, so this is where I call home now.

So, I like to think that I am an outgoing individual, or at least try to be because I think it’s fascinating to meet new people — people can surprise you in so many different ways. I love spending time with people that I love; it is the purest form of joy for me. I truly value dedication and independence because those two qualities can take any person so far in life. Throughout my whole life, there were so many instances when I questioned my purpose or when others would ask the same question to gain perspective. And I have come to realize or, moreso, have decided that my purpose is to help as many people as I can. I have grown up with a lot of privilege and I see it as a responsibility of mine to give back to the world, in which so many people are struggling, that has provided me with so much.

There are not many people that I idolize because my biggest inspiration is someone very close to me — my father. I am the kind of person I am today because of him and I could not be more grateful. To me, my father is living proof that I can do anything I want. He is one of the most selfless individuals that I have ever met and I only aspire to be like that someday. I live by the values he has instilled in me and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. In light of that, I will leave you with something that he always tells me, “No matter what you do with your life, the most important thing is to be a good person.”

Srilalana Appasani

Why did you start KisumuKrafts?

KisumuKrafts was actually founded by a group of IMSA students that graduated as part of the Class of 2019. I decided to take over their venture because I saw an incredible amount of value for what KisumuKrafts stands for. KisumuKrafts is an initiative that is working to offer women in Kisumu, Kenya a path into the formal economy in order to gain self-sustainability. We wanted to give these women an opportunity to reach a larger audience with their unique and hand-crafted products.

Sustainability is incredibly important to the world we live in now. By offering these women an opportunity to participate in their own businesses, we provide them stability. It is important that these women are empowered and given the opportunity to lift themselves. And providing them with the help they need to be successful and self-sufficient will always be the right thing to do.

In addition, my team and I decided that we have the ability to educate ourselves and others. Therefore, we have decided to soon publish articles, webinars, and interviews about women empowerment and gender inequality on our website (kisumukrafts.org). Education is an important tool and we recognize that we can make an even bigger impact if we help others understand the issues that have continued to plague our society.

What qualities did you look for in your team?

When I started putting together this organization, I did not have a certain vision of what my team would look like but I knew there were many different facets to this that I had to consider. I knew I needed a lot of help in order to accomplish what I wanted to with this organization. Since I knew it would be easier if I had a team completely composed of IMSA students, I decided to release an application and I found a group of individuals that I knew would help me greatly. These individuals filled certain roles that I needed on the team: Director of Marketing, Logistics Director, Outreach Chair, and Director of Communications. They have all shown admiration for the purpose of KisumuKrafts and I truly appreciate it. I am incredibly grateful for finding such a great team to work with.

What do you see as the future of KisumuKrafts?

The plan has always been to expand and reach as many people as we can. We want to expose KisumuKrafts to schools and established organizations to gain traction. It’s important that we gain more recognition for the sake of the women that we are supporting. We want to be able to collaborate with organizations that have the same mission as us and hopefully rise together to create a larger impact. However, there are always smaller goals that are a part of the bigger picture for what we would like to accomplish in the future.

What is your favorite product?

I really don’t think I have a favorite product because all of the products are so unique and beautiful. They all encapsulate something different about culture and are so well made. I feel like it would be unfair to pick a favorite. But, I really hope people are able to see the novelty behind these handmade products.

If you were to start KisumuKrafts again, what things would you change with the knowledge you have now?

In the beginning, we had a difficult time really pushing ourselves to get fully started because we were so focused on minute details. So, I think the only thing I would really change, if I was to start KisumuKrafts again, is that I would spend more time in the beginning stages to really put ourselves out there. We wanted everything to be perfect and we have realized that perfection is obviously not easy. Therefore, it would have been efficient to start off right in the beginning and build ourselves up from there by reaching out to the surrounding community and established organizations to gain support. However, I still think we are going to accomplish a lot with the time we have and I hope to see KisumuKrafts grow into something that is successful and strongly stands by its mission.

5. “Everyone Deserves Happiness” — Music Box Project Founder

In this fifth article in my new series Student Heroes, I interviewed the founder of the non-profit Music Box Project about her history as a musician and how that affected her non-profit.

Who are you?

My name is Chandra Gangavarapu, and I am a rising senior at the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA). I am also the Founder and President of Music Box Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for mental health by providing music opportunities that I launched in July 2019. Aside from Music Box Project, I am greatly interested in math and computer science, and as a singer, Indian classically trained dancer, and violin member of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, I also hold a great appreciation for the arts.


Chandra Gangavarapu

Why did you start the Music Box Project?

As I entered high school, I became aware of the mental health crisis that people in my community were facing and the stigma surrounding treatment. It was disheartening to see people that I knew struggling with their mental health, unable to find support or seek out resources. I wanted to unite my community in order to advocate for the cause, and as a musician, I knew that music was a powerful tool to do so. I organized a fundraising benefit concert on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), where ten talented singers gave a concert, and representatives from various mental health organizations spoke about mental well-being. The event was a tremendous success as we raised $1,000 in one night, and I then knew that advocating for mental health through music was an impactful idea that could be developed into a sustainable organization. I believed that forming this organization was the most direct way that I could create a change in community well-being.

I began planning the basics of the non-profit organization, and by using music as the channel for advocacy, I realized I could also give back to the music community which had taught me so much. Combining my two passions, music and advocacy for mental health, I was able to successfully create an organization that advocates for mental health through music, giving musicians opportunities and recognition while improving the mental well-being of our community.

What is your experience with music?

Music has been a central part of my life since I was very young. I started learning Carnatic singing, a form of Indian classical music, when I was five, and I continue to learn and perform regularly. I credit much of my passion for music to Carnatic singing for having given me a solid foundation in the art. Aside from Carnatic music, I had been enthralled with the violin since I was five, and I started taking lessons in fourth grade. I was fortunate enough to be accepted in Waubonsie Valley High School’s reputable Chamber Strings program as a freshman and the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s youth symphony level as a sophomore. Both singing and violin provided me with priceless satisfaction and joy that I could not have experienced through any other activity.

Over the years, I fell in love with music, its rich history across cultures, and the sheer creativity of musical artists, and I began to explore how I could create my own identity as an artist. In the summer of 2019, I collaborated with one of my close friends and released an EP (extended play) that incorporates both Carnatic and western elements and is now available on all streaming platforms. My journey into music production is relatively new, but I am currently creating new music that is heavily influenced by modern r&b and Bollywood music from the ’60s and ’70s. Aside from creating and learning music, I have also taught Carnatic lessons and co-led several vocal workshops as a volunteer for my initial Carnatic teacher. I hope my experience with music will help me shape my efforts in creating music of my own and in creating meaningful opportunities for musicians through Music Box Project.

Where do you see Music Box headed?

Following the success of our first music competition held in October, I am working to grow our mission to different communities and host events across the United States. Many communities across the world fail to address the importance of mental health or the severe damage that untreated mental illness can cause on personal and socioeconomic levels, and we will work to dismantle this stigma in as many locations as possible by developing charters outside of Illinois and increasing our group of volunteers.

As a result of the pandemic, many music activities have shifted to the virtual sphere, and following suit, we are creating a global community of musicians through our next event, the Virtual Showcase, which is an opportunity for talented musicians of all ages and styles to submit a video that has a chance to be featured on our website. The goal of this showcase is to connect musicians from all over the world during these challenging times.

I would also like to expand past organizing competitions and concerts to hosting music workshops that cover different topics such as songwriting and music production which will advocate for mental health. We are growing our network of music and mental health professionals for our newly-formed interview series that explores the relationship between music and mental well-being on a personal level. Furthermore, we have recently added a blog portion to our website in which we cover relevant issues concerning mental health in different communities.

With continued growth in these areas, Music Box Project will support a much wider range of communities, providing musicians with more diverse opportunities while raising awareness for specific mental health issues each community may face.

What makes The Music Box Project unique?

Music Box Project is a one-of-a-kind mental health advocacy organization since it serves as a cross-section between the music and mental health sectors. We offer musicians of all styles opportunities to improve their artistic skill sets while advocating for an important health issue.

There are a plethora of phenomenal mental health organizations that spread awareness, offer therapy services, and run support groups, but community events geared towards mental health advocacy often fall short in attendance due to a lack of incentive. By providing musical opportunities that draw both an audience and participants, Music Box Project incites attendance, allowing attendees to learn about maintaining mental well-being during these events. Music Box Project also patches a hole seen in the music industry where budding artists do not have many low-cost opportunities to improve their performance skills.

With the unique combination of music and mental health, we not only encourage great music, but we also build a healthier community, proving that advocating for mental health through music is a promising and unique venture into sparking social change.

Who has been your biggest inspiration in this journey and why?

I have always been inspired by my violin and vocal teachers since they have taught me much more than the music itself. Their commitment to their service for the music community inspires me to carry the same level of dedication and passion to the mission of Music Box Project. My teachers had directly improved the lives of so many students including myself and had given back to the next generation of the community that had originally taught them. Aside from their dedication, my teachers had treated me with kindness and believed in my potential which undoubtedly boosted my confidence, allowing me to improve and meet higher goals.

I aim to carry the philosophy that I have learned from my teachers in my mission for Music Box Project–the philosophy that each person can find support and has the potential for improvement. I raise awareness for mental health since I want anyone that may be suffering to know that they have the potential to heal and that they can find support. I provide opportunities for aspiring musicians because I believe that each musician has the potential to reach greater heights. Ultimately, my music teachers have been the foundation of not only my musical ability but also of my drive and commitment to creating meaningful social change.

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