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October 27, 2023

Sixth Former Miru Nam spent her summer studying the aquadynamics of bluegill sunfish.


Miru Nam ’24 always knew she was interested in STEM. She couldn’t have predicted, however, that her interest would lead to her taking a deep dive on the mechanics of the way fish swim. Selected to the School’s Applied Science and Engineering Program (ASEP), Nam spent a month this summer at Tufts University in the laboratory of Eric Tytell, an associate professor of biology who specializes in biomechanics and neurophysiology of locomotion.

At the core of the lab’s work is the study of how water moves around fish as they swim. Through flow tanks and underwater cameras, researchers map how changing conditions initiate different responses from the fish, modeling intricate data points that ultimately help engineers craft better underwater autonomous vehicles.

For her ASEP internship in Tytell’s lab, Nam blended her interest in biology with her growing background in computational science. Focusing on the deceleration of bluegill sunfish, which have a large pectoral fin and deep body that make it a prime animal to study maneuverability, Nam worked high-speed underwater cameras to track the animal’s movement. That footage was then uploaded to a computer, which Nam analyzed, frame by frame, marking different movements of the fish’s fins. She then programmed code to graph the data she’d collected.

“They could be long days because you’re working with a live animal and you can’t predict their behavior or manipulate their behavior to what you want them to do,” Nam says. “It required a lot of patience and trying different things to see how the fish would respond.”

But she says the work was everything she hoped it would be. Her team was small — she collaborated with just Tytell and Andrew Clark ’12, a doctoral student in Tytell’s lab — but the exposure she received at a prominent academic laboratory was huge.

“Being able to do that hands-on work in a professional laboratory environment taught me not only about the tangibles, the technical aspects of work and stuff like that, but also the importance of pursuing something that you’re passionate about,” Nam says. “Just being able to take ownership of a question and investigate it like we did was really enjoyable.”

Back at St. Paul’s School, Nam has continued the research she started at Tufts. As it happens, the School’s ponds also are stocked with bluegill sunfish, and throughout the early autumn, the senior will be doing another round of analysis. Nam spent time during her first few weeks back on campus rigging up an underwater camera system that consists of three GoPros fixed at the points of a triangle-shaped PVC frame. She says the work she’s doing this fall will robustly build on what she concentrated on this summer.

Miru Nam '24 with camera setup at SPS ponds
Nam sets up her underwater camera system at Turkey Pond — a process that involves checking the water temperature and ensuring proper calibration of GoPros affixed to each corner of a submerged PVC frame.

“Most research has been done in a controlled environment,” she says. “Actually observing the fish in its natural environment and seeing what it does, that hasn’t really been explored yet. That’s exciting to me. It’s hard work, but I’m really invested in what I’m doing — I don’t mind turning my free time over to this. I don’t see it as additional work.”

It’s hard to imagine that Nam has free time. An avid computer programmer, she is a member of the SPS Coding Club and over the years has developed different games to play with her friends. She’s also used her skills to pursue personal projects, including a recent endeavor to develop a method to find and correct an error in the Braille code. A gifted humanities student who credits her SPS classes in the discipline with helping expand her perspective on the world, Nam earned the coveted Dickey Prize in Humanities at the end of her Third Form year, and last year explored the history of public spaces for women during the feminist movement’s Second Wave. As co-head of the school’s Asian Society, she has committed herself to helping others feel safe and welcomed through cultural gatherings and more irreverent get-togethers.

If there’s a through line for all these pursuits, it’s collaboration and connection, says Nam. “From living in Korea and California and at St. Paul’s, I have had the opportunity to be a part of various communities,” she says. “Through these experiences, I’ve learned the value of engagement and support.”

Including working with others to develop vital insights about the way fish swim.