When Salena B. Prakah-Asante ’22 walks into the Harvard Art Museums for our interview, she’s wearing a vibrant yellow coat and a smile to match. We greet each other, and I quickly learn it’s been a busy week: she’s one day away from turning in her thesis. This report on using computer vision to assess how individuals do tai chi is the final step toward her Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering joint degree. After finishing the degree this semester, she plans to pursue a range of artistic and creative interests in the spring.
During that time, Prakah-Asante plans to learn two new instruments, participate in dance competitions, and nurture a vast array of other interests. It’s a remarkably varied itinerary; completely divergent from her STEM-heavy concentration and fitting for the person nominated as the Most Well-Rounded student in the senior class.
From a young age, Prakah-Asante recalls, she’s had a desire to explore many realms of inquiry and expression.
“For the most part, my hobbies and activities were things I've been developing from as early as elementary school,” she says.
Art — which she describes as her “medicine” — and especially fashion are among her longest-standing interests. She started sewing with her mom when she was eight and made her first garment (a Hunger Games Halloween costume) at age 10. In high school and college, she’s made her own formalwear for events like senior prom and Black Legacy Ball. Over Thanksgiving, she plans to design a streetwear collection. And over the past few years, she’s served as both fashion director and executive producer of Eleganza — an annual student-run fashion, dance, and music show.
When I ask which designers inspire her work, Prakah-Asante cites Alexander McQueen, but she explains that her inspiration comes mostly from experiences in her own life. She shows me one design inspired by a childhood favorite book, “The Secret Garden”; another done as a project for an African and African American Studies class. Uniqueness is important to her.
As we look at pictures of her work, she reveals that she does her own photography and videography, as well as editing and production. From design to execution to modeling and photography, she often executes every step of her creative process herself.
She’s so invested in fashion that she says it feels almost like a second concentration.
When I ask how she did narrow down her concentration options, Prakah-Asante explains that she’s liked engineering for a long time, but she chose to study computer science because she found it difficult.
“Being well-rounded for me [means that] if I see something as a huge weakness, I want to improve. So I was like, ‘what better time to try to get better at [computer science] than by studying it as a whole ’nother concentration?’”
Outside of art and STEM, Prakah-Asante has a strong interest in entrepreneurship. She cites it as something she wants to be part of her life after college, alongside work in software engineering and potential plans to pursue an MD-Ph.D.
Luckily though, she doesn’t have to wait until after graduation to begin. Just a few weeks ago, she was elected president of Virtual Discovery. Led by a small team at Harvard Medical School, the group does computational screenings for drug development.
“It’s really cool to be able to think about how to optimize our business because that directly translates into producing better drugs,” she says.
This is not her first experience in the business world. In high school, she helped her brother monetize his high-profile social media account into a blog — Track and Field Forever — which gives people athletic advice. She’s known as the “family writer” and has drafted over 100 posts. Eventually, they began to sell merch as well.
Her story about Track and Field Forever leads us to chat about her own impressive sports experience. Though she doesn’t compete at the varsity level, Prakah-Asante was a very serious runner in high school and continues to train at a high level today. She tries to work out for 2-3 hours every day.
She’s also a dancer (“at Harvard they have free dance lessons, I don’t know if people know this!”) and a gymnast (she half-jokes that a main incentive for taking a class at MIT this semester was her desire to access their gymnastics facility).
If it seems impossible for a single person to do all of this at once, Prakah-Asante concedes that yes, balance is both challenging and critical.
“You do have to pick and choose. You asked me earlier if I’m able to sew as much during the school year — definitely not. That's something I try to spend more time [doing] during breaks,” she explains, saying that classes and school-related activities take precedence during the academic year.
Still, Prakah-Asante packs her days. Her ideal day starts at 6 a.m. with a workout, followed by some journaling (something she’s been trying to do more consistently) or creative writing. Her afternoons are less routine, but they usually consist of juggling responsibilities for classes and extracurriculars.
As our interview draws to an end, Prakah-Asante reflects on why her friends chose her for the superlative and why having diverse interests is so important to her.
“We live in a world where being a specialist is like, the key, right? You go to college and you want to specialize and go do that field, and I think that makes a lot of sense in a lot of realms, but it’s something I could have never done,” she says. “I don’t want to specialize because there's so many things that exist out there.”
— Associate Magazine Editor Mila G. Barry can be reached at email@example.com.