For Shailey Shah, there was no exact time, no "Aha!" moment, in which she knew she wanted to pursue medicine.
It was more of a gradual thing, the recent Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences graduate said.
"I go through interests really quickly," she said. "I get interested in things and I do them and I move on to other things, but I think medicine and biology are just the ones I always kind of circle back to."
And that, she said, was how she realized she wanted to do it for the rest of her life.
"[My sister and I] never took money as an indicator of whether we should go into that field," she said. "It was always like, 'Are you interested in it enough? Can you actually stick with it for that long?'"
This summer, she had the opportunity to be one of two students representing Tennessee at the National Youth Science Camp. The camp is in the Monongahela National Forest near Green Bank, W.Va., and integrates STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) presentations and hand-on activities with outdoor activities and performing and applied arts.
John Giroir, director of the NYSC, said the camp is a unique experience for students and has potential to impact them for the rest of their lives.
There were 108 other delegates from all 50 states, as well as eight countries, including Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Mexico.
"I met some of the most amazing people at that camp, and I still keep in touch with them," Shah said. "I'd never met people from Iowa or an actual Cali girl, you know? It's awesome to meet people and see their personalities and how their state shaped them. And making your own experiences together is really cool because you see how alike we all really are."
Each day began with optional exercise time at 7 a.m. and breakfast at 8 a.m., followed by an hour-and-a-half lecture from 9 to 10:30 a.m. After that, campers would participate in a directed study and then have time to either rest or spend time with friends or attend a series of 45-minute seminars, in which campers learned creative things, like crafts or improvisational acting.
"If you think of a normal summer camp, this is exactly like it," she said. "But you're surrounded by a bunch of people from everywhere, not just people from a certain state."
Campers also went on several backpacking day and overnight trips in the wilderness. Shah said those were her favorite parts of the camp.
"There was this specific area called the Dolly Sods wilderness, and when I was there, I felt like I was in Europe," she said. "And then in one hike I went through probably five different ecosystems. It looked like you were in a completely different state, but this was within one mile."
Now, Shah is in the middle of the second week of her freshman year at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. She's majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, and she said she already had hit the library on the first day to study for a couple of hours.
"That was the rude awakening," she said laughing.
But after attending the science camp, Shah said she feels less bound by academic degrees and is more motivated to explore her interests without worrying whether they line up with her field of study.
"When you talk to each of the lecturers and you see where they started and where they are now, they didn't start with the original intent and sometimes not even in the same field as what they're working in now," she said. "And I think that was the most amazing thing, because it shows just how curious minds are accomplished people."
And her ambition did not go unnoticed by her instructors.
"[Shailey] is a perfect example of the kind of student who is a leader among leaders and goes on to significant achievements in the STEM fields," Giroir wrote in an email.
As for her end goal, Shah said she hopes to make a positive impact on those around her.
"I don't know how that is yet," she said, "I haven't figured that out, but I know it's the little things I do now, just anything to make them smile and change their day."
In the future, she said, she wants to travel the world, meet people and hear their stories.
"I want to see if I can do something to make their life better in any way, whether it's a conversation, a hug, some medicine or a treatment plan," she said. "I just want to affect the people I meet and not just be there. I want them to affect me and me to affect them for the rest of their life."
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.