Allyson Strachan of Vinalhaven is in the top 5 percent of her class at the U.S. Naval Academy where she studies weapons and systems engineering. The 21-year old is captain of the school’s ice hockey team. She dreams of being a Navy pilot and one day creating a business that makes medical devices.
And she just won a national scholarship for graduate study in Ireland next year that only four other Mainers have ever received.
Currently, the Hebron Academy graduate is working on a project to modernize a 3-D printed prosthetic hand for children, so it’s touchscreen compatible. (Current plastic prosthetics don’t engage with touchscreens, which are used not just on iPads but ATMs, airport check-in counters and some refrigerators. It’s like trying to use your smartphone while wearing gloves.)
She’s backpacked for a month in Alaska to learn survival skills, and traveled to Turkey to learn about the culture and climb Mt. Ararat. She’s overseen 1,000 campers and 100 midshipmen at the academy’s STEM Camp.
Strachan also has synesthesia, a rare condition where her senses overlap in a way where she feels colors. When she sees people, their personality and movement lend them different hues.
Her accomplishments helped her win the George J. Mitchell Scholarship, which is awarded by the U.S.-Ireland Alliance to 12 people every year from across the country. (I also received it, in 2008-2009.) She plans to study signal processing at the Dublin Institute of Technology, with an aim to one day create better medical devices based on an understanding of the electrical signals that drive a person’s movement.
The scholarship, which is sometimes described as an “Irish Rhodes Scholarship,” is named in honor of the former U.S. senator from Maine who served as chairman of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. It has an acceptance rate of 4 percent.
We wanted to know more about Strachan, her ties to Maine and what motivates her. Here is a condensed Q&A:
Q: How did growing up on Vinalhaven and in Maine shape you, do you think?
A: I think that being a Mainer has been what has really defined me at my time at the academy and set me apart from the other people that I’ve studied with. I have felt very tolerant of other people, which is something that I think I get from Maine, and very at peace with myself, which I think comes from living in a place that has a lot of nature, spending a lot of time outdoors. I know how to be at peace with myself, and I know how to separate myself from my situation, and not be so obsessed with success and the race that life can be, but appreciating the little things, staying grounded and knowing who I am when I’m faced with a lot of outside pressure to be somebody else.
Q: Tell me about synesthesia? How does it manifest for you?
A: Synesthesia is a neurological condition where my senses overlap. I tend to feel things in color and have many experiences at once. … It affects how I perceive movement because I tend to perceive people in terms of the way they move and the color that that person represents to me. … Growing up in a rural area where I couldn’t see my neighbors, I was never really overloaded by having this condition.
Q: You said you wanted to be a Navy pilot. How does that work with synesthesia?
A: I think it will help because it helps me orient myself. … It helps with memorizing things [such as where north, east, south and west are] because I can sort them by color and figure out where I am.
Q: What does going to Ireland and getting this scholarship mean to you?
A: Going to Ireland means exploring and an educational opportunity, that I thought I’d have to put off after service, to explore my curiosity in medical device design, and be a part of an idea that’s greater than myself, which is an international community that comes together to make this world a better place. Of the Mitchell scholars that I knew before I was involved, I admired them, and I saw them as role models, and I’m excited to follow in their footsteps.
On ice hockey:
A: Playing at Hebron and then playing here has made me who I am, and it’s been the means to develop me as an officer and a person. It’s taught me grit and hard work and teamwork. These skills I developed from being an ice hockey player I know will translate well to being in the Navy and being in the Mitchell community.
Q: One of the most important things to George Mitchell, and he’s spoken and written about this, is education and encouraging people to be a part of a community. What would you say to people who are younger than you about what’s possible for them in their life?
A: If there’s something I could say to young Mainers about education it would be that getting an education and developing is not just a selfish endeavor, but it’s something that benefits you and also people around you. Being tolerant and having an understanding of the world around you makes you a better community member, which in turn makes your life and Maine a better place to live.