Olneya Fong: Science Superhero on a Renaissance Tour

Tuesday, April 9, 2024
Phoenix College graduate Olneya Fong has received two Associate degrees from Phoenix College in May 2023 and will graduate from Phoenix College Prep Academy, her high school, in May 2024
With two Associate degrees from Phoenix College, sixteen-year-old Olneya Fong continues to work with one of her Chemistry mentors, Dr. Eddie Fong, on the scanning electron microscope (SEM) to look at the bark of the ironwood tree.
Sixteen-year-old Olneya Fong, Phoenix College graduate and high school senior, in a white lab coat at the Hermanas conference offering participants an opportunity to look into a microscope.
Phoenix College alumna Olneya Fong works with mentor Dr. Eddie Ong in Phoenix College's Center of Microscopy and her father, an Ecological Landscape Designer to measure the density of an ironwood carving.  Olneya is named after the Ironwood tree. .
Olneya Fong at the May 2023 Phoenix College Commencement where she was awarded two Associate degrees.

If there were a movie about teenager Olneya Fong, it would defy most Hollywood formulas for teenage coming-of-age films (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Mean Girls, Dazed and Confused) about students trying to avoid or endure high school. Olneya is a student who sees school as an opportunity to learn about various subjects, especially Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). On campus, you might find her in fandom-based clothes from the Loki TV series, a black business suit, or a white lab coat offering participants at the Hermanas conference a glimpse into a microscope, foreshadowing her future as a chemistry professor. This diversity in her fashion parallels the diversity of her talent in multiple fields. 

Olneya skipped 8th grade to voluntarily attend two schools, Phoenix College Prep Academy (PCPA), her high school, and Phoenix College (PC). She was reluctant to leave her previous school because she had made many friends and it was a great community. "At PCPA," she said, "I knew I would have access to college laboratories, college professors, and college classes that would help me gain a stronger foundation in STEM and prepare for university." 

Indeed, access to the scanning electron microscope (SEM) at Phoenix College has Olneya discussing the ability to measure the sharpness of a dog flea's leg hair because of the microscope's high magnification. "High school microscopes only magnify to 100x whereas the electron microscope can magnify up to 80,000x." PC's Center for Microscopy, directed by Chemistry Professor Dr. Eddie Ong, houses the only SEM in the Maricopa County Community College District. Students typically don't work on the SEM until grad school, so Dr. Ong issues PC students a certificate confirming their mastery. PC graduates often include the certificate in their job applications and have returned to thank Dr. Ong for the salary boost it provided them at semiconductor companies like Intel. "The Center of Microscopy is one of the gems of Phoenix College and MCCCD," Ong said. 

Olneya started school at PCPA in August of 2020 when she was 13. "That first semester, I took my first college class – GCU 221, which is the history of Arizona through geography. During the spring semester, I took Psychology 101. My sophomore year, I started taking a lot more college classes." Soon, she had not one but two associate's degrees and graduated from PC in May 2023 with an Associate's of Science and an Associate's of Arts. "I never expected to get my associate's degree by junior year. That wasn't my goal. I wanted to dive deeper and learn more beyond the high school level. All of those credits somehow accumulated into two degrees," she said. As a high school junior, Olneya delivered the commencement speech to PCPA's Class of 2023.

Liz Sandefur, Coordinator of Admissions and Records at PCPA, noted that this year, Olneya was nominated for the 2024 U.S. Presidential Scholars Program, established in 1964 by executive order of the President to recognize some of our nation's most distinguished graduating high school seniors. 

Despite completing her associate's degrees, Olneya's work on the Phoenix College campus continues. At 16 years old, she's a Learning Commons tutor in chemistry, biology, and math and a peer mentor in the Student Success Specialist (SSS) program, offering study sessions and one-on-one tutoring in organic chemistry. Stephanie Madison, who serves as coordinator for the SSS program, said Olneya has built a rapport with the students she supports and is already making a difference in their success. "I've been able to help students understand the reasons behind concepts instead of memorizing things at surface level," Olneya said. "I've had students come back to me after finals week and say, 'Yay, I did it! I passed my final.' That's rewarding." 

Her current project with Chemistry Professor Eddie Ong at PC's Center for Microscopy has taken on a special significance. She is studying the morphology of various parts of the Sonoran ironwood tree (Olneya tesota) – her namesake – using the scanning electron microscope (SEM). Her father, a Landscape Ecological Designer, is also part of the collaboration. During one lab session, the three of them calculated the density of an ironwood bird carving by submerging it in a water-filled beaker and weighing the amount of displaced water. Olneya also looked at a small piece of ironwood bark in the SEM, which shows a layer of multiple perforations reminiscent of the ellipsoid screen of architect Al Beadle’s home White Gates. Dr. Ong explained what was visible on the SEM's display was smaller than a single human hair.  

Olneya is on a first-name basis with Ong, whom she calls Ed. "I took his MNT201 (micro nanotechnology) class last semester. We learned how to use essential scientific technology like the atomic force microscope and chemical bond analysis with FTIR," which is Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy, for the nonscience majors among us. He has also served as Olneya's Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program mentor and trained her to use the SEM and the Bruker Phaser D2 X-ray diffractometer (XRD). He nicknamed her Octopus because of the diversity of her talents. "Olneya also participates in a research project led by Dr. Robin Cotter and sponsored by the Arizona Department of Health Services that studies microplastics," Ong said. "She has an intense scientific curiosity and is unafraid to ask relevant questions. She has a great future ahead of her." 

Olneya credits Dr. Jim White, another PC chemistry professor, for staying after lectures and lab to improve her understanding of the material. “He has a lot of wisdom,” said Olneya. “I’ve learned life lessons from him too. He shares many stories about his career as a professor, which I’ve found helpful for my journey.” 

Once Olneya becomes a chemistry professor, she plans to research renewable energy – photocatalysis and electrochemistry are the latest pursuits in energy research – and teach. Still, she'd also like a side gig as a film composer. She plays piano and viola and started composing music two years ago. "For me, music and chemistry are related," Olneya said. "In both fields, I'm creating something that can help society. Chemistry is about atoms and molecules; we're building compounds. I do the same thing in music with twelve notes, taking fundamental building blocks and making them more complex, like in chemistry. I find that satisfying." Her music composition, "Heroes of the Past," is featured in the most recent digital issue of RISE, Phoenix College's writing and art magazine

If chemistry and music weren't enough to demonstrate her excellence, Olneya also speaks three languages – English, Mandarin, and German – and has played golf for nine years. In her free time, she spends time with her younger sister, Olina, who is also taking college courses. This spring, Olneya will decide where to continue her education. Accepted at Arizona schools (ASU, NAU, U of A, GCU), several University of California schools (Irvine, Davis, and Santa Barbara), and the University of Minnesota, Olneya noted, “Colby College, a liberal arts school in Maine, awarded me a generous scholarship of $84,845/year, covering tuition, room, board, books, and miscellaneous expenses!" Having been waitlisted at Princeton, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, Olneya is still deciding. And yet, wherever she goes, she'll continue to maximize higher education opportunities and likely inspire a scientific documentary rather than a fictional coming-of-age story.  

Are you interested in attending a high school with access to college classes? Learn more about PCPA. Ready to start your STEM career at Phoenix College? Explore your options.