Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
It's time again to meet our judges' choices for Arkansas's top 20 high school seniors. The class of 2014, our 20th, is a dizzyingly smart bunch, with rarely a B on their transcripts and near perfect test scores. They fill their lives with far more than studies; when they're not in school, they're shadowing doctors, building robots, growing exotic plants, playing in orchestras and volunteering overseas.
Back in 1995, we created the Academic All-Star Team to honor what we called then "the silent majority — the kids who go to school, do their homework (most of it, anyway), graduate and go on to be contributing members of society." Too often, we argued then, all Arkansans heard about young people was how poorly they were faring. Or, when students did get positive attention, it came for athletic achievement.
As you read profiles of this year's All-Stars, it should be abundantly clear that good things are happening in Arkansas schools and that academic achievers deserve to be celebrated.
To mark this milestone anniversary of Academic All-Stars, we checked in with alumni to see how far the promise of high school excellence has taken them. As you'll see on page 26, today, alumni are doctors of every variety, research scientists, international aid workers, award-winning teachers, critically acclaimed filmmakers — the dozens we managed to contact are spread out around the world doing fascinating, meaningful work.
Who knows where the future will take this year's All-Stars? We can say with some confidence that most of them will attend a ceremony at UALR this week where they'll be honored with plaques and $250 cash awards.
The final deadline for college decisions has not yet arrived. College plans listed here are, therefore, not set in stone.
A future without borders
Sitting in a peaceful classroom, it might be hard to believe that there are places in the world where people are dying for a drink of water, or a plate of food, or the right to go to school. One scholar who keeps those truths in mind every moment he's in class, however, is Hytham Al-Hindi. The state student actions coordinator for Amnesty International, Hytham helps plan protests and student actions all over the state. Hytham said that helping people around the world has been a passion of his from a young age. This year, for example, he has been active in discussing and staging events in opposition to U.S. drone strikes in the Middle East, and advocating for the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Hytham said it's amazing that people have the power to change the life of someone on the other side of the world. "Just a couple of people who take the time to write letters and petitions can save the lives of people who are oppressed for their beliefs," he said. "I really think it's humbling and empowering for anybody, even if you're in high school, to do something like that — to help people around the world just by doing activist work." Hytham currently has a 4.33 GPA and runs on Jonesboro High School's track and cross-country teams. He has been accepted into the Ingram Scholarship Program at Vanderbilt, which will allow him to work in the summertime with groups like Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations. He plans to become a doctor, and said his parents have been a huge influence on him. "They always taught me to try your hardest, no matter what situation you're in," he said. "They've taught me to just look to the future and do your best in the present."
The accidental All-Star
North Little Rock High School's McKenzi Baker said she never set out to be the best in her class, she just happened to get there on the way to achieving her dreams. An avid writer from a young age, McKenzi — ranked No. 1 in her class at North Little Rock High with a 4.3 GPA — said that creative writing, and fiction in particular, has always been in her blood. "I love writing. I've always loved writing," she said. "It's a very special passion of mine. It is a way for me to understand things. When I write about them, I can see things from different perspectives. It makes me understand people's perspectives as well." McKenzi will be attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she has been offered a scholarship in the school's Donaghey Scholars Program. After college, McKenzi hopes to turn her love of the written word into a career in the publishing industry, though she hasn't yet decided if she wants to work for a large publishing house or start her own press. Asked why she pushes herself to succeed, she said a lot of the credit for that drive goes to her parents, though she reserves some for herself. "They were responsible for establishing my studying habits when I was little," she said. "But a lot of that would also have to come from having a plan of what I want to do after high school. Once you have a plan of where you're trying to go, then you can figure out what you need to do to get there. ... I just wanted to make sure that I was on the right track to get to my dreams."
A home run
Given how challenging it is — both in terms of time and energy — to be either a star high school athlete or a standout in the classroom, it's not surprising that we can count on one hand the number of Arkansas Times Academic All Stars over the years who have also been members of high ranking athletic teams. At some point, most students just have to choose: Do I want to devote the time to my studies or to the field? One of the rare students who has done both is Fayetteville's Jay Boushelle, who normally plays right field on his school's varsity baseball team, crowned state champions last year. With a pop-fly of a GPA — 4.34, for those into a player's stats — he said he's a "math and science person" whose particular love is calculus. "It's been a life journey for me," he said. "The process of improving, the process of making my way up in high school teams and competitive teams. Being able to improve myself is very fulfilling." Boushelle said that splitting his time between academics and sports can be challenging, especially during baseball season, but he's been able to make it work. "It really gets very challenging, especially when the spring semester comes around," he said. "I'm at school until 6 p.m. almost every day, if not later. That gives me very little time to fit in my homework. I'm in five AP classes this year, five last year, so it's been a challenge, but I've been able to work my way through it, and I've come out on top." On the field and off, he said, he has always been working for a brighter tomorrow for himself. "I know that might be the stereotypical answer," he said, "but that's absolutely true for me. ... I'm always just working toward a better future."
Sketching her dreams
Though science has pretty much debunked the idea that there's a "right brain" and a "left brain," with one dedicated to creative pursuits and the other tied to math and science, you might not be able to convince Fayetteville High School's Madeleine Corbell of that. A math and science whiz with a grade point average of 4.14 at last count, Madeleine has come to see her artistic pursuits as a welcome respite from her more numbers-heavy passions for math and science. She's loved sketching and drawing her whole life, she said, but never pursued it until recently. Her art has since become a sort of mental cushion when the rigors of her challenging academic schedule become too much. "I have really come to love it really as a sort of escape from the strain of everyday life," she said. "It's a great way to direct my energy elsewhere so that my brain can rest. I love being creative and doing things hands-on. It's a really relaxing and enriching experience for me." These days, Madeleine — recently selected as a National Merit Scholar and awarded the Governor's Distinguished Scholarship — paints in both oils and water, sculpts, and draws in pen and ink. She'll put her pens to good use in coming years at the University of Arkansas, where she plans to study to be an architect. "I feel like I have quite a bit of inner motivation and self-discipline, the desire to perform to the best of my abilities, and not take an easier route. I know I can do better and I want to do the best that I can. I'm sure that stems from my family's background. My parents have always stressed the pursuit of knowledge, and that inspired a love of learning."
Pressed for success
The best class Seth Daniell ever took was a philosophy class, part of the Arkansas Governor's School summer program at Hendrix College. "We talked about what is reality and what is truth," Seth said. "We spent a whole 90 minutes discussing whether a tree was more real than the color red or the other way around." When he isn't considering the nature of reality, Seth is usually playing music. He plays trumpet in jazz band, sings in the choir and plays French horn in his school's marching and symphonic bands. His parents are music lovers, he said, and he's always had a gift for it. As you might expect, he is particular about his listening habits. "I'm not a huge fan of rap or hip-hop or that kind of thing. Though some pop music, I think, is good," he says. He cites the contemporary Christian singer Michael W. Smith as an artist he especially looks up to. Aside from music, he also participates in Quiz Bowl, which he calls an "outlet for useless knowledge," of which he has a lot. He remembers one recent victory — what word could mean both a support element on the wing of a plane and a way of walking? (Strut.) His classmates, for reasons he prefers not speculate about, voted him "Most Likely to Succeed." "I kind of have mixed feelings about that," he said, "because now I kind of have to succeed or else I'll look like even more of a failure." He plans to study music composition in college, and hopes to eventually write film scores. He cites John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Daft Punk as influences.
"I always felt it was cool to know things," says Andrew Fleming. "Even if they have no real meaning." It's a sentiment that Fleming, ranked No. 1 in his class at Watson Chapel High School in Pine Bluff, embodies daily as a star participant in Quiz Bowl, which at Watson Chapel is taken fairly seriously. The team practices every day at lunch and three days a week after school, competing in tournaments almost every weekend. He describes earning a reputation as a smart kid early in life and enjoying it. "People would always ask me things," he said. "That was a time when it was really cool to be smart, and I guess I never really lost that — I held onto that." He said his best area is history, though he's also good at "trash questions: popular culture, sports, pop music." Fleming also takes part in Modern Arab League, most recently representing Jordan. "We always hear about these other places, and sometimes I wonder if half the people in the U.S. know what the news is talking about," he said. "Sometimes I don't even know." He also sings in the choir and has been All-State for the past two years. When his school band director needed a tuba player, he asked Fleming, who had no prior experience with the instrument. "Now I'm the only tuba in the band," he said. "Just because he asked me to." Fleming has been selected as a Governor's Distinguished Scholar.
Determined to carve her own path
When Alex Glenn told her parents that she planned to join Arkansas's first all-girls ROTC program, they were more than a little concerned. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she remembers them saying. "You don't want to join the military, right?" She laughs thinking about it now, offering that they were probably worried she would "sign up and, like, go to war." Her friends at Little Rock's Mount St. Mary Academy were equally surprised. "When I started showing up to school in a full-on military uniform," she said, "they were a little taken aback at first." But as Alex explained, "I was determined." This has been a pattern in Alex's life. She tells a story about a taekwondo tournament she attended in the sixth grade, in which she found herself the only girl participating in a group that included nine boys in her age bracket. She came in first. "They were a little mad," she says. She eventually earned a black belt, and is now working toward her second degree. Is she planning to join the military? She acknowledges she's thought about it. "I really want to go into a medical career," she says. "So I've thought about becoming a military doctor." She describes a visit to a veteran's hospital as "eye-opening," and said it left her convinced that she would go into a career working with veterans, "maybe physical therapy or psychiatry," she said. Either way, she's certainly capable. As her school guidance counselor explains, "There are strong academic students, and then there is Alex Glenn."
Arman Hemmati's calculus teacher calls him "intellectually brilliant," while his English teacher settles for "gifted," noting also that working with Arman on ACT prep questions "helped to improve my grammar skills." In a letter of recommendation written to the Arkansas Times on Hemmati's behalf, his guidance counselor Amy Slater notes simply, "He is brilliant." Arman is a National Merit finalist, one of six students in the state to earn a perfect score on his ACT, and also the captain of his high school soccer team. "It's gotten more serious lately," he said of his soccer obligations. "There are actually things at stake." In addition to his various academic and athletic responsibilities, Arman is also a more than competent pianist and plays keyboard and rhythm guitar in a classic rock cover band called Just The Chips ("Like 'no salsa, just the chips,' " he explains). Denizens of the greater Fort Smith area music scene will no doubt will be familiar with the band's rendition of Boston's prog-rock anthem "Foreplay/Long Time," which opens with a virtuosic keyboard intro from Arman. He cites the song as his favorite to play, along with Journey's "Separate Ways." They've played "some festivals and churches" and local spots like Neumeier's Rib Room and La Heurta Mexican Restaurant. Arman plans to keep his piano lessons up in college but won't make it his focus. Instead, he's leaning toward "chemistry or physics, or just theoretical math, because that stuff is cool."
Like many science-minded Arkansas students, Yeongwoo Hwang chose to leave home (in his case, Jonesboro) to attend the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs so he could advance beyond the calculus class offered by his high school. "It's really amazing," he said of the school: ASMSA has 10 computer science classes (there were zero at his home high school) and has made it possible for him, for example, to do research into ad hoc networks for mobile devices. He's given back to ASMSA too, writing the code for the school's class registration website and creating an app that allows users to upload 3-D printer diagrams from the school's server. We may all take comfort in the fact that Yeongwoo wants to work for the government as a network security analyst; sounds like he can do the job. Yeongwoo is a multidimensional sort of guy; he enjoys hiking in the national park with his friends and he plays clarinet in the Arkansas Youth Symphony. Music, he says, is "really cool. ... Every time you play music, it's different from what you played before ... there are so many emotions and feelings" that go into it. Which is also why he likes computer science: "Every time you write a program, you're always creating something new." He'll continue to pursue computer science and engineering studies at college.
Katie McGraw's high school counselor, Carla Choate, said Katie "doesn't wait to be told what to do or to be shown how to do something. She is already way ahead in her thinking and usually has a plan already well in place." So if you ask Katie what her college and career plans are, you get the idea that what she thinks now is what she'll think in four years, and that is to enter medical school and specialize in anesthesiology. She knows this because she job-shadowed at White County Hospital and, while she'd hoped to shadow a cardiologist, was assigned to an anesthesiologist instead. She met him at 7 a.m., followed as he did seven surgeries, "and he told me all about the different things he was doing. ... You wouldn't expect surgery to be so calm," she observed. Katie plans to do a dual major at Lyon, where she is attending on the full-ride Brown Scholarship, adding Spanish into the pre-med mix, with a minor in creative writing. (Why Spanish? "I've always wanted to go to Spain," she said, again planning ahead.) Katie's writing — on the need for primary care physicians — won her a first prize from the Clinton Foundation when she was just a junior. She got to meet President Clinton. "He talked to [all the contestants] for a long time about our essay ideas. ... I was kind of surprised because he actually read all of our essays." Katie has a deep faith in God, and despite all her wide-ranging talents and honors — first in her class, National Merit scholar, winner in Stamp Out Smoking essay and poetry contests — she said her most significant achievement is "making it through school without sacrificing my Christian testimony." She gave her career on the basketball team as an example: "There's pressure to be ruthless on the floor and ruthless with your teammates. ... One of the things I believe is you have to love everyone just like Jesus did. Sometimes in athletics there's a lot of jealousy that goes on and it's really hard to keep a good, positive outlook. That's something I'm kind of proud of myself because I haven't really succumbed to that."
Esther Park's essay she submitted to be considered as an Arkansas Times Academic All-Star shows a real talent for writing, which she might put to good use as a lawyer, one of the careers she's considering: "I had my palm read once. The lady gazed at my right hand, and then my left, and commented on the peculiar palm lines I had. 'Straight across the hand,' she mused. She proceeded to tell me that I was clear-sighted and wise. I'm not sure how much of her personality reading was on divination, but after that event I began to think about my traits." One of them: "I am essentially unable to procrastinate because it makes me feel terrible; any laziness I indulge in is usually preplanned." You don't become third in the senior class at Central by being lazy, that's for sure. Besides earning a 4.46 grade point average and having 16 AP classes under her belt, Park also plays violin at Central and in the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra, earning first runner-up at a National High School Honors Performance series at Carnegie Hall (and we all know how you get to Carnegie Hall). She said, by the way, that she hates K-pop music despite her Korean ancestry. Park also volunteers at Presbyterian Village, where she reads to residents and enjoys hearing the "interesting stories" they tell about their lives. Though Park is also considering pre-med in school, she said, "I've been thinking about law for a while. ... Maybe as a judge, but not a lifetime lawyer. I think that would not mess up my character, but it might tamper with it." She could put her experience on Central's Ethics Bowl to good use at the bar. She didn't say so, but geology might be a good career choice: She loves rocks and fossils, picks them up whenever she travels to add to her collection of around 200. Writer, musician, volunteer, acing classes in microeconomics and calculus and Chinese and world history: Park can do it all. Can't wait to catch up with her in 20 years, as we do with other All-Stars in this issue.
Kaleigh Ramey is a serious competitor. "I like to beat people," she said. "It's one of the reasons I do so well. I like to be the best at everything I do." That takes hard work, and she's proud of the fact that she has worked her way to second in her class of 258 students and has earned a National Merit finalist award. She didn't always work hard — because schoolwork came so easily. But you're not going to ace the eight AP classes you've taken without work. (She said she taught herself how to study in her junior year.) When she's not hitting the books you might find Kaleigh playing golf, well enough to be on the school golf team and be named All-Conference. Kaleigh was born in Lubbock, Texas, but her family moved to Searcy so her father could take a job at Harding in the physical therapy program. She's going to Harding too, and while she would have been able to attend at a much-reduced rate simply for being the daughter of a faculty member, she got a full ride for her National Merit standing. Her college plan is to pursue a double major in biology and criminal justice, and then head to graduate school to get a degree in forensic science. She wasn't inspired by the spooky books of forensic pathologist and writer Patricia Cornwell, which is just as well since they can be fairly gruesome, but by the crime shows that she and mother enjoy watching on television. Asked how her friends would describe her, Kaleigh said "sarcastic ... but we all kind of are." She'll probably drop the sarcasm this summer when she goes on a mission trip to Houston to work with inner-city kinds. Then she'll hit the links before diving in to academics again.
Team player seems a slightly unusual phrase to apply to someone so gifted in an individual sport, but Tiffany Tang uses the phrase and so does her coach about her role on the Rogers High tennis team. She's only the third player on record to win four state championships in high school tennis — two in singles and two in doubles (with her sister Katherine). She was undefeated in 101 matches. Though singular in achievements, her influence was greater, her coach wrote. "She has a unique ability to lead the team through her gentle kindness and humble nature. Tiffany is a team-first person. She is most proud of her two team championships ... a one-in-a-million kid." Tiffany ranks second in a class of 491 students at Rogers with a 4.38 GPA. Her ACT score of 35 is just one short of the best you can do. Her courses run the spectrum of AP work, from science to math, literature and government. "She is positive, genuine and always has a smile on her face," said counselor Janna Gartman. Her high school life isn't all about tennis. She's also been a team leader (there's that word again) in the Link Crew, which provides mentoring to freshmen students. She spent the year helping young students make the transition to their first year in high school. She'll be off to Rice University in the fall to study mathematics. She doesn't have clear career goals yet. "I just really like math." Problem-solving is "fun," she said. And she'll be focused on it. College will end her team tennis career, though she expects she won't stop playing a sport to which she devotes a couple of hours a day. Something has to give, though, as when she put aside competitive piano, a pastime she'd worked at since age 5. She still plays her favorite classical music, but competition? "I'm just too busy." But, said counselor Gartman, she is never too busy not to help others. Gartman recalls a summer camp at which Tiffany quietly helped a physically challenged student participate in all the activities. "She's always thinking of others," she said. That's teamwork.
Grace Thomasson credits her parents with her ideas about competition. Don't compare your grades or swimming times with others, they said. Compare them with your own past efforts. "I strive for my personal best at everything I do, disregarding any other validation," she wrote. She admits in an interview, almost sheepishly, that the results have never translated into Cs, though she insists she'd be fine with that if it was the best she could do. Not to worry. Grace ranks first in her class of 111 with a 4.32 GPA. She's a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist. Her straight-A record covers such tough courses as AP statistics, Spanish 4, calculus, chemistry, history, English and environmental science. Grace isn't just a grind, piling up course credits. Louisa Rook, her counselor, said: "She's not only first in her class, but a true intellectual." Others are equally admiring. She won an award for her off-campus internship, essentially a part-time job at the Department of Human Services compiling data for a program that moves people from nursing homes to community care. She works a couple of hours at it every day. She moved from data input to personal surveys of 370 people on how the program works. Grace thrives on such personal interaction. The personal touch explains her desire to get into biomedical engineering. She thought of learning to make "hospital gadget kinds of things," but said, "I wanted to do something social with people." That led her to prosthetics. She wants to learn to invent and fit prosthetic devices and talk to people about improving their lives. "That would be fun," she says. She credits a project at UAMS, the Perry Initiative, for inspiring her. She was among a select group of girls who donned scrubs, heard talks, built things, worked on a cadaver and otherwise were shown a pathway to science careers. One lecturer, "a sweet woman who was a mom and a doctor," persuaded her that you could be a successful doctor and have a family life, too. "If she could move into the medical world, I could, too. And I thought, well, that's awesome." Sort of like Grace.
The comfort of books
It's a long way from China, where Christine Townsley spent her earliest years, to Rogers, Ark., where she's managed to assimilate well enough to become a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, top debater and a mentor to at-risk students at Heritage, where she ranks 12th in a class of 479. But she appreciates a retreat now and then and does it by working in a nonprofit bookstore that benefits the library. Her weeks "are loud," she says. So weekends spent shelving books (in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror section) are welcome. Pushing a book cart, she finds "there is something calming in the smell of an old book, a comforting connection to the past." Christine's own past is full of movement, from China to Kansas, back to China and then to Rogers. Her parents met at the University of Arkansas. Her mother was a native of Malaysia, with Chinese roots. Christine was born when her father worked in China and her years there equipped her with the ability to speak Chinese. She's founded a Chinese Club at Rogers. Her counselor, Ericha Edgar, said the experience has forced Christine to redefine her cultural identity and also to stretch herself in less familiar subjects. There's no doubt she's got a gift for science and math. She finds applied engineering appealing, which explains a past summer program at UA and a plan to major in biomedical engineering at Duke. "It's a way I could help," she says, and a hands-on discipline to "really see the effects of what you are researching." If it doesn't work out, she says matter of factly, there's always med school. She dropped debate after a successful season last year. Too many demands from a rigorous AP courseload and leadership of Chinese, math and engineering clubs.
Busy, busy, busy
Desperately seeking Olivia Tzeng:
AT: We'd like to talk to you today or tomorrow.
OT: I won't be getting home until 10:30 tomorrow night because I have a soccer game to travel to right after school. Is that too late to call or is there a better time for you? I am free Saturday afternoon.
AT: How about Monday?
OT: I will be in Fayetteville all Monday morning and early afternoon for their Fellowship Weekend. I should be free between 5 and 6:30 on Monday, though. Would that work for you?
AT: How about Tuesday?
OT: I have a soccer game at 5:45 but my coach will want the team there at 4 to watch our JV team play. My game should be over by 7 p.m. Sorry for all the inconvenience! Sunday morning could work for me? Or Wednesday afternoon. What time should I expect a call? Or should I call.
AT: How about 3 p.m.?
OT: I will be in a Youth Leadership Session until 3:30. Would you be available at 4?
Finally, we did talk with Olivia. We had been warned. Her counselor, Jeannie Moore, had told us Olivia's high school record was a "feat," between band, soccer and rigorous academics. And that's not all. She has a healthy round of other activities, school and community, including a key role since her middle school years in Quiz Bowl. Olivia, whose brother Jevin, was also a Times All-Star, is ranked third in a class of 609 at Conway High, always stocked with top students. She views her busy schedule as more of a "juggling act" than a feat. But, she wrote, the activities are not merely balls, but "individual spheres of influence that represent aspects of more core self." Some core. She's active in the Faulkner county Youth Leadership Program, Key Club, Beta Club, Model United Nations and a raft of volunteer programs. Her 4.327 GPA came from a schedule packed with AP courses.
Future leader, engineer
Eli Westerman is a natural born leader. A four-year letterman in track and football, he served as team captain in both as a senior. He made All-Conference in football and was named Arkansas Scholar Athlete of the Year. But Eli said that more than awards, sports helped him develop his leadership skills — "to speak up and lead people, and to lead by example." It's no surprise, then, that Westerman became Student Council president. He was inspired to run after Fountain Lake extended school times "in a way that I felt was not really democratic." He ran on a platform opposing the change and pushing for more transparency in government. "I worked my tail off to try and get it revoked," Eli said, and though he wasn't able to get the hours changed, he said, "I think the fact that I've taken that stand, that's what's important in the end." Sound like anyone? Eli's dad, Rep. Bruce Westerman, was the Majority Leader in the Arkansas House of Representatives and is now running for Congress in the Fourth District. Eli said he wouldn't completely rule out running for office himself someday, but "right now that's not what I'm looking for." Instead, he's following in the footsteps of his father, an engineer; Eli plans to study biomedical engineering at Yale next year. "I realize that my favorite thing to do is solve problems, whether that's student government or athletics or in the classroom, I just love solving problems. That's basically what engineers do. Maybe that's what God has given me as a task to do on this side of the dirt." In addition to founding his school chapters of the National Honor Society and the Science Club, Eli successfully sought a grant to found a Robotics team at his former middle school. He wanted to foster enthusiasm for learning among younger students and give them an outlet beyond just making A's. Eli served as a coach and mentor to the kids, who created robots that completed various challenges, and also developed a program to educate the community about preparedness for natural disasters. In addition to all of his activities and athletics, Eli — a National Merit finalist — took a whopping 11 AP courses and finished first in his class with a 4.23 GPA.
When Andrew Willoughby was 6 years old, the family's cat clawed a hole in one of the leaves on a rubber fig plant his parents had. Andrew, naturally curious, was fascinated by the sticky white sap that oozed out. Thus began an interest in plants that has become the passion of his life. When his grandmother gave him a houseplant as a present, he found he had a natural green thumb — now if his family asks what he wants for Christmas or a birthday, well, they already know the answer. "I made an Amazon wishlist and filled it with plants," Andrew said. "Here's a link, order whatever you want and I'll grow it. ... And ever since I've had any kind of money of my own, I've spent it on plants." Among the plants he's currently growing: several young citrus trees (the lemon tree is his favorite), hot peppers, herbs, ornamental grasses, cacti. Andrew is heading to University of Oklahoma next year where he plans to study, of course, botany. He's also interested in biotechnology and synthetic biology. He recently contributed to a Kickstarter project to genetically modify a plant to glow. "That's the kind of thing I'd like to do," Andrew said. "That is amazing to me and I like to think about all the possible applications of that and all the problems you could solve. Creating transgenic plants that could produce medicines, biofuels, perfumes." Andrew said he loves science because it involves the practical application of math, and numbers have always come naturally to him (he fondly remembers his dad helping him with multiplication when he was just 3 or 4 years old). After finishing every math class on offer after his junior year, eStem had to add math classes this year to keep up with his needs. Andrew also pursued more advanced study in science and math on his own via open-source college courses online. In addition to his success in the classroom and turning his home into a veritable garden, Andrew — National Merit finalist — found time to captain the Quiz Bowl team, intern at the Democratic Party of Arkansas, and play clarinet and piano.
Ben Winter thought it would be cool, he said, to participate in a research fellowship at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences last summer. What he didn't expect: It turned out to be a "life-altering experience that set me on the path to doing science as a career." Working with cutting-edge equipment to research stem cells and cancer, Ben was like a kid in a candy store. "It was wonderful, just a really great environment for me," he said. "It was a place where I can imagine myself being happy in a career and fulfilled — a place where I can just kind of discover and experiment to my heart's desire." A passion for scientific research runs in the family — Ben's grandfather was dean of research at UAMS, where he worked in biochemistry. "He passed away a few years ago but I've gotten to go back through some of his notes and look at what he was doing when it was happening, which was really interesting," Ben said. Getting a peek at his grandfather's work on the sodium-potassium pump from years ago was inspiring to Ben, whose hope now is to eventually do research in biology, too, perhaps with a focus on stem cells. Something else Ben might have gotten from his grandfather: He's more than just a science whiz. "He was just an encyclopedia," Ben said. "He had books all around his home — about architecture, poetry, Dickens novels. I kind of picked it up and I've always had an appreciation for a whole bunch of different things." Ben writes poetry, was the captain of the Quiz Bowl team, runs track and makes chainmail shirts in his spare time. He serves as class vice-president, participates in Student Congress and was elected Speaker of the House at Boys State. A National Merit finalist who scored a perfect 36 on his ACT, Ben managed all these activities while maintaining a 4.5 GPA, first in his class.
Alex Zhang is clearly a brilliant student — an ACT score just shy of perfect, second in his class with a 4.47 GPA — but don't try to pigeonhole him. He is a photographer, a guitarist, a theater fanatic, a poet. He's a star debater, will soon become an Eagle Scout, and has a passion for teaching and mentoring younger students. Alex, who plans to study political science, philosophy and economics at Yale next year, said that though he likes science and math, he rebels against the stereotype of Asian-American students. He sacrificed a potential valedictorian slot to pursue his passions, giving up the additional AP class he would need to secure the top ranking so that he could captain the debate team and take a creative writing class, because those were the things he "really loved," he said. Though he's had a dominant record in Arkansas as well as national success, he said his favorite part about debate is mentoring younger debaters. "It's that feeling of community in our debate squad," he said. "You can't match it anywhere else." As for writing — for which Alex has won several national awards — he said, "Writing lets me explore things that I never get to do in real life." He's written everything from science fiction to poetry about his experiences as an Asian American living in the South (some of his amazing slam poetry is online; check it out). There aren't enough pages in this paper to cover all of Zhang's wide range of impressive achievements. He's been an editor of the Central High Memory Project, an oral history project. Along with three other students, he presented a film on Asian-American slam poetry at the CAAMFest in San Francisco, one of the largest Asian-American film festivals in the country. He's won awards for his conceptual photography projects and is now doing senior portrait photography around Little Rock. ("The camera is like my third eye," he said. "It's about self-exploration. I feel like myself when I take photographs.") He does drama tournaments, solo mime-improv performances and has acted as the lead in plays at the Arkansas Arts Center. "There are never enough hours in the day," Alex said, "but I just do what I love to do."