Highland Park teen builds a bridge between technology and art

Amita Shukla’s summer vacation will be fun and exciting in ways that have nothing to do with lounging leisurely at the Jersey Shore.

The 16-year-old is going to represent Highland Park in the 2015 session of the New Jersey Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology, where she will collaborate with other high school students on an original research project that will be presented at the end of the summer program.

The statewide program allows no more than one applicant for every 325 members of a given high school’s junior class. Fewer than 25 percent of about 400 statewide are admitted to the program, which is held at the Rutgers School of Engineering in Piscataway. The program, cost-free to the students and their families, looks for students interested in engineering careers, with strong skills in art.

That description matches her. Amita has had an exhibit of original artwork on display for the past several weeks at the Academy of Art of Highland Park, where she works as an assistant instructor and has taken lessons for about five years. Ana Soto-Canino, owner and director of the academy, gave Amita a glowing review.

“Amita has become exceedingly sensitive and skilled at relating parts to the whole, at identifying causal relationships, understanding structures in spatial terms, and working with, rather than against, accident and chance,” said Ms. Soto-Canino. “These are just some of the many areas of skillful observation and analysis that Amita is honing as a visual artist, and which will surely play very large roles in her training as engineer.”

Amita’s interest in art began in pre-school. She remembers learning about the Italian Renaissance painter Michelangelo and about the Sistine Chapel.

“When I went home, I tried to draw portraits of people on the underside of the table, as though it were a ceiling in a cathedral,” she said. As she recalled, her parents were as supportive as they could be under the circumstances. “They were like, ‘At least it’s the underside.’”

Amita’s interest in art persisted through the years. She remembers at the age of seven, she kept herself amused on a long plane ride by drawing likenesses of the other passengers on the plane,  while she made up names  for and stories about each of them.  Around this time, she also began to develop an interest in her father’s work as a mechanical engineer.

Engineering with its complex calculations and detailed processes would not seem appealing to someone who appreciates the creative artistic process, said Amita.  But in fact, the Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci also designed bridges, siege weapons and other, smaller-scale machinery. And  Amita finds that the two disciplines are more than compatible; one discipline fuels the other.

“You have to be able to understand it before you draw it, but you understand it better when you draw it,” she said. “It’s also true that in physics class I’m more visual than other people, and in art class I’m more technical than others.”

With one year of high school left, Amita is thinking about college. Yale University is her dream school, but she also would be happy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as Rutgers University.  Wherever she goes to school, Amita plans to follow her father into some form of engineering professionally, but she has not decided which branch. She hopes that the governor’s school would be the perfect environment to help her develop a preference for a particular engineering specialty.

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