Comparative Arts Major Wins Science Prize and Trip to Stockholm

As Maya Samuels attended the Nobel Prize Ceremony and met with Nobel Laureates in Stockholm, Sweden, it probably felt like a dream. In fact, however, the eighteen year-old comparative arts student was an invited guest, one of only 24 students in the world who attended the event as part of the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar (SIYSS). 

SIYSS is a weeklong annual event for young scientists from around the world. The event is coordinated with and supported by the Nobel Foundation. While the participants are chosen in a variety of ways, all have demonstrated exceptional interest and accomplishment in a scientific field.

Maya, an Israeli, started her path to Stockholm with research at MIGAL, the Galilee Technology Center in Israel. While there she studied with Professor Giora Rytwo and became interested in solving a chemical mystery involving a color, which coincidentally, happened to share her name: “Maya Blue.”  

Starting in around the sixth or seventh century, the pre-Columbian cultures of South America produced a vivid azure blue pigment that they used in a variety of artwork. Maya Blue was not only beautiful; it has also proved to be remarkably durable, retaining its vivid color even after centuries in a tropical climate. The method for producing Maya Blue was practiced for centuries but then lost in the calamitous years following the arrival of the Spanish.

Working with Prof. Rytwo, Maya had two goals. First, she wanted to understand how Maya Blue was made. Secondly, she wanted to discover if its formula had modern applications. Working alongside Rytwo and several graduate students Maya studied the unusual properties of the pigment.

“I really liked this topic because it is really multi-faceted,” explained Maya. “There is archeological and historical background and its right on the borderline between physics and chemistry. And it is so visual.” Maya also noted that the research has broad technological implications.

Although the research on the subject is ongoing, Maya began presenting some of their findings at a variety of venues, starting at an Intel-sponsored science contest at the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, where she received second place and a scholarship. She went on to present her work at another contest through the Waitzman Institute, which has a partnership with SIYSS. After two presentations of her research, Maya was chosen to make the trip to Stockholm, where she would join 23 other student scientists from around the world. 

“It was incredible,” says Maya of her experience in Sweden. “Out of this world. Some people called it epic. It was really amazing to see that side of science. So much of it is just hard work and going through data. But we were taking part in exclusive events and meeting and attending lectures with scientists who are at the top of their fields. We were all really lucky to be part of this at such a young age.”

Although Maya completed this project before she arrived at Interlochen, Bill Church, the director of the comparative arts program, noted that Maya’s broad interests were reflective of Interlochen’s newest major. “She has a natural curiosity and desire to come up with new ideas,” said Church. “You can see from her research that she has an ability to synthesize and master ideas from vastly different disciplines: archeology, history, chemistry and visual arts, among many others.” After noting that Maya also plays cello in the Academy orchestra, Church added: “She’s a perfect fit for comparative arts.”