2015-04-15 / News

Ms. Worldwide: Student’s film gains international acclaim

By Michael Buettner

Clover Hill’s Michelle Marquez has gained international recognition for her research in behavioral sciences. 
Manuel Marquez Clover Hill’s Michelle Marquez has gained international recognition for her research in behavioral sciences. Manuel Marquez A sophomore in the Math and Science Specialty Center at Clover Hill High School is well on her way to setting a new standard for what it means to be high-achieving.

Winning First Place and Best of Category awards in behavioral science at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles last year doesn’t seem to have been nearly enough for 15-year-old Michelle Marquez. After all, her older sister Samantha had done the same thing (in the bioengineering category) three years in a row.

Michelle won those awards, along with a number of others, for her neuroscientific research into how music and images can trigger emotional states. What she found was that changing a specific mathematical characteristic of the music or image, the “fractal dimension,” triggered different emotional states in the person listening to the music or viewing the images.

That work had already drawn international attention, including an interview with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, when Michelle decided to put it into a form that people could experience for themselves.

In an interview, she said she wanted to “combine science with art in a way that could reach a large audience.” To achieve that goal, she decided to make a film using the James River as a subject.

Michelle teamed up with Richmond composer Lincoln Mitchell and worked with him to create music that fit the mathematical parameters to stir a variety of emotions. She joined forces with Richmond filmmaker Patrick Gregory to shoot the film, using drones and infrared cameras, and edit the result to create an experience that would become “more intense as the video went on.”

The result is a three-minute film, “The Emotional Dimensions of the James River,” which can be seen on YouTube at

It might be the fractal dimension of the music and images, or it might be the spooky, otherworldly quality of the infrared images, or both, but the film has drawn a huge response locally, across the nation and around the world.

Michelle presented the video at a TEDx talk in Richmond in November, and a number of attendees suggested various film festivals that she might consider entering. “I tried to find film festivals that were open to young filmmakers,” she noted. “I progressively got connected to people in the film industry, and they recommended certain festivals.”

The result has been one triumph after another. Just since the beginning of this year, the film has been accepted as an official selection at 100 film festivals around the U.S. and Canada, in Europe, the Caribbean and as far away as Indonesia.

So far, it has won more than 20 awards at those festivals, most recently (last week) the Best Youth Film award at the Earth Port Film Festival in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

According to Michelle’s father, Manuel Marquez, those numbers are enough to have earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for most awards won by a short film by a young filmmaker. (And another interview with Sanjay Gupta.)

Science runs in the Marquez family – Manuel Marquez is a chemist, and his wife, Carolina, is a chemical engineer.

Samantha, Michelle’s older sister, is a freshman at Yale University after graduating from Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond and racking up some pretty impressive achievements herself for her bioengineering research: 2013 Davidson Fellow Laureate, 2013 BioGENEius Challenge National Winner and a First Place award in the International Space Olympics Competition, among others.

Having two such high-achieving daughters is a learning experience in itself, Manuel Marquez said. “I think we’re learning more from them than they’re learning from us.”

But for Michelle, it’s about more than science at this point – it’s about continuing to try to connect science with art.

“I definitely feel like I want to continue filmmaking,” she said. “It makes me feel more in touch with my artistic side. Doing the research is something I enjoy, the neuroscience. But doing a film, you’re surrounded by new tools, new ideas; there are so many opportunities to express your artistic side.”

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