By John P. Huston,Tribune reporter
Scott Beck's brain isn't the only instrument he uses to help him excel at math and science.
Beck, a Highland Park High School senior, turns to the French horn to "kind of keep me balanced and keep me sane, and keep me going through the hard sciences."
In a competitive environment like Highland Park High, he succeeds at just about everything he tries, whether it's academics, athletics or music, said Principal Brad Swanson, who nominated Beck for the Tribune's All-State Academic Team scholarship competition.
In addition to his stellar academic credentials and musical achievements — he has a 4.69 GPA on a 4.0 scale and was selected French horn first chair in the North Shore Honor Band, to name just two — Beck also played goalie on both his school and club soccer teams for four years.
"I think Scott is a very unique student because I truly don't feel that he is consumed by or wrapped up into his standard of performance," Swanson said. "I always appreciate his commitment to — as silly as it might sound — to the journey that he's on. He values every single experience that he has, and every single day."
Beck, a National Merit Scholar, also notched a perfect 36 on the ACT.
In his high school career, he has received only four overall class grades below an A.
"They're A-minuses. I can't complain too much about that," Beck said jovially, conceding that the sciences are a "labor of love" and that he gets a thrill "seeing how things fit together and ... how chemistry fits into physics."
Beck plans to study mechanical engineering at Northwestern University next fall. He said he's "very interested" in energy research and alternative energies.
By Jennifer Delgado,Tribune reporter
When an injury sidelined Michelle Dobbs from basketball and running for nine months, the three-sport athlete unintentionally found a second calling.
Dobbs, then a high school sophomore, channeled her energy toward her school's math team. She has kept up with it ever since and took seventh place at this year's pre-calculus state contest sponsored by the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
"Before, math was another subject I was good at," said Dobbs, 17, now a senior at Rochelle Township High School. "When I started going (to practices), I think I realized I liked it more and that I could be competitive at it."
The daughter of two high school coaches, Dobbs grew up playing sports and being around athletes on her parents' teams.
Early on, she applied the discipline she gained from sports to school. Ranked first in her senior class, Dobbs has a 4.66 GPA on a 4.0 scale, takes classes at Kishwaukee College in nearby Malta and is captain of the cross-country, basketball and track teams.
"Sometimes it is hard to balance it all, (but) I think it wouldn't be possible if I didn't enjoy it so much," she said.
This fall, Dobbs will attend the University of Chicago, where she plans to study mathematics and run on the cross-country and track teams.
Her principal, Travis McGuire, said Dobbs is a quiet leader but a fierce competitor. She guides her classmates and teammates by example, he said.
"She leads with those relationships. She's not saying, 'Hey, you need to do this. Look at me,' " her principal said. "She's really developed a rapport with her classmates, and they look to her."
By Diane Rado, Tribune reporter
High school senior Aaron Kollasch thrives in two worlds, one filled with Chopin and Rachmaninoff and the other with algorithms, robotics and biomedical engineering.
The accomplished musician and science whiz also makes time for competing in math contests, dabbling in art and playing benefit concerts for various causes.
"He can do anything he wants to do," said Shawna Stanley, Kollaschs guidance counselor at Neuqua Valley High School.
Kollasch, 18, aced the ACT college entrance exam with a perfect score of 36, and he has gotten a top score of 5 on every college-level Advanced Placement test he's taken so far.
He's veering toward majoring in biological sciences at Northwestern University this fall, with perhaps a minor in music. But, "It's kind of hard to choose," Kollasch said.
In his Naperville home there's his charcoal self-portrait on the wall, done as a freshman; his 1842 French cello; and a piano. He began cello lessons at age 3, and piano at age 6. Kollasch was selected to participate in the prestigious 2013 Chicago Youth in Music Festival.
Then there's a robot arm, sitting on the floor, which Kollasch and a partner built in connection with Science Olympiad competitions.
Neuqua Valley science teacher Paula Mueller said Kollasch is tireless and tenacious. "He really has a vision in his head and he sticks with it," she said. "He's always wanted to be recognized for an invention or something that he's created."
In his All-State nomination, Kollasch wrote about working last summer as a lab intern, and knowing that perhaps someday, his work could help create a new vaccine or therapy "to alleviate human suffering."
By Lolly Bowean,Tribune reporter
Almost from the time he started talking, Patrick Liscio peppered his parents with questions about math, science and how things worked. By the time he was 5, he asked them to assign him math problems to solve and study.
"They taught me how to add and I became fascinated with how numbers worked," Liscio said. "For as long as I can remember I've been excited about math. It's something in the world that you can be absolutely sure of."
Liscio, 18, a senior at Niles West High School, plans to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall.
At Niles West, he holds the school's highest grade-point average in his class of 662 students and earned a perfect ACT score. Liscio had the 10th-highest score among the roughly 55,000 students nationwide in this year's American Mathematics Contest, his school's records show.
He likes to tackle puzzles and is adept at solving Rubik's Cubes.
Liscio is celebrated at his school for helping other students, Principal Kaine Osburn said. Last year he was math tutor of the year at the peer-tutoring center, Osburn said.
"He has taken what he is good at, and since he has a passion for it, he has sought out opportunities to challenge himself," Osburn said.
Math and physics come easy for Liscio, said his mother, Jan Liscio. "He's passionate about math and always has been," she said. "He really, truly enjoys math, science and physics. He asks a lot of questions and wants to learn new things. I don't know where he gets it."
By Bridget Doyle,Tribune reporter
Brains might be Richard Pan's strongest suit — but the teen with a 4.7 GPA and a perfect ACT score also knows how to make teachers and classmates laugh.
Pan was one of the top 16 seniors chosen by his peers at Libertyville High School for the court of the Turnabout Dance, a modern Sadie Hawkins Dance where the girls ask the guys. He announced his place on the court by entering a school assembly to the tune of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" — in February.
"Richard is extremely bright, but also funny and self-aware," said Michael Gluskin, Pan's former AP English teacher. "He's confident and comfortable being the intelligent person he is. He's not afraid to put himself out there."
When he's not buckling down to study or practicing with the school's debate or math team, Pan said he spends much of his time working at Kumon Learning Center in Mundelein — a math and reading center where he's tutored since eighth grade.
"I think it's a great thing to be able to help others," Pan said. "I want to give them what I've learned from my great teachers."
What's driven Pan to success is a genuine interest in learning. When he has free time at Kumon, he cracks open books and teaches himself using the provided manuals.
"I try to do my best every single day," Pan said. "So far it has worked out."
Next year, Pan plans to attend the University of Chicago and major in economics. He said he hopes to one day be able to achieve Bill Gates' status in both success and philanthropy.
"(Gates) does so much in terms of managing and donating his money — it's almost more impressive than what he's done in the first place," Pan said. "I'd like to be able to help the world in some way like him."
By Ellen Jean Hirst,Tribune reporter
Yellow and red wires, high-speed graphics and sound cards and fans that glow blue fill the belly of the computer Michelle Ross built when she was 15.
The hardest decision, she said, was choosing the parts she wanted. After that, "it wasn't that hard to put together, physically," said Ross, now 18.
When her family's computer crunched its last data and died, Ross' dad assigned the then-freshman in high school to find a new one — but there was a catch. Her budget was $1,000, which wasn't going to cover everything on her wish list.
So Ross looked into how much it would cost to buy everything she wanted in separate parts: $990.
Ross bargain hunted for parts online and traveled hours to catch good deals, she said.
Using instructions on the Internet, and with a little help from her dad, Ross built a new superdesktop in her family's living room. After that, she caught the programming bug.
"I started looking at all kinds of software," Ross said. "I started looking at how they were created, and it really interested me."
This fall, Ross plans to study computer science at the University of Chicago. She also plays the piano, studies Japanese language and culture (aspiring to live in Japan someday) and tutors other students in subjects ranging from geometry to Spanish.
Her guidance counselor at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Christine Hartnett, said Ross "is brilliant" — with an ACT score of 35 and a 2400 on the SAT — "yet unassuming."
She has always expressed a willingness to help others, Hartnett said.
"She's just really a lot of fun," Hartnett said. "She's always smiling when she walks into my office."
By Angie Leventis Lourgos,Tribune reporter
Carrie Sha has come so far since struggling to learn English as a 6-year-old Chinese immigrant.
"It was just such a different world for me," said Sha, now an Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy senior with a 4.0 grade-point average, a slew of academic achievements and a near-perfect SAT score.
The 18-year-old from Plainfield used her own childhood challenges to help tutor children of refugees in the Aurora area, as well as help fellow students studying for calculus, biology, chemistry and college entrance exams.
Sha, who excels in both the sciences and arts, plans to study biological sciences at Harvard University. She hopes to work as a research scientist while continuing to pursue her love of sculpture, photography and painting.
She's currently studying memory loss in epileptic patients as a student researcher at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
"I love being able to get results, finding patterns in the data," Sha said, adding that she enjoys meeting patients. "Then I can put a face to the data."
Her oil painting "Senior Smile" — a portrait of her grandfather — was displayed in the U.S. Capitol as a winner of the 2012 Congressional Art Competition. She has designed birthday cards for a hospice center and donated to her school several artworks, displayed on campus.
"She's very humble," said Kara Molenhouse, her college and academic counselor at IMSA. "You would never know how much she accomplished. She's very much a thinker, very introspective. Just a genuine person."
By Rachael Levy,Tribune reporter
In his essay for the Chicago Tribune All-State Academic Team scholarship application, Neil Sheth criticized Albert Einstein's decision to endorse the atomic bomb. Sheth believes scientists should focus on technology that benefits humankind, he later explained.
The 18-year-old, a senior at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, said he wants to "make something meaningful for the world," namely in health care technology.
"Much of the field is yet to be discovered," said Sheth, who has participated in several medical research programs and has been shadowing physicians at local hospitals through a district-run Medical Academy program. "That area will be significantly influential in how our country progresses, especially with the health care reforms that are going to be in effect."
Sheth, captain of his school's cricket team, has been taking part in the DECA business club and participated last month in the finance section at the international-level competition in Los Angeles. The event "helped me come up with new ideas and new ventures," he said.
Sheth plans to attend Northwestern University, which offered him guaranteed admission to the medical school should he pursue that route, he said.
"As of now, all I know is I want to study biomedical engineering. ... I was thinking I could go to medical school and go into the medical field, or I was thinking of pursuing an economics minor and something related to entrepreneurship and going into finance" related to health care technology, he said.
As Sheth prepares for the fall, his college counselor Diane Bourn predicted a bright future: "I've often said that if anyone is going to solve the health care crisis in our country, it's going to be Neil."
By Robert McCoppin,Tribune reporter
After a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Fremd High School student Renata Wettermann traveled there to help rebuild an orphanage.
Later, hoping to make an even longer-lasting impact, Wettermann and other members of her church raised money, collected computers and returned last year to open a lab to teach residents basic computer skills.
Ultimately, she said, her goal is to help individual Haitians develop work skills that could lift them into the middle class.
"People are already starting to talk about starting a business," she said. "That's the hope."
Wettermann's work in Haiti is just one of her many interests.
A National Merit Scholar, the Inverness resident plays badminton and cello, is a private tutor for younger students, has volunteered to help immigrants at the Palatine Opportunity Center and is a four-time qualifier for the state speech competition.
Wettermann, 18, also leads a weekly Bible study at her church, led a seminar to promote healthy body image and self-esteem to younger students and participated in charity events like the Relay for Life cancer walk.
Fremd Principal Lisa Small, head of the Palatine school, called Wettermann "a wonderful young lady. She's just a standout in terms of how she carries herself. She's very positive, very outgoing. She's obviously very organized, and she is constantly on the go."
In the fall, Wettermann plans to enroll in the Rice University/Baylor College Medical Scholars Program in Houston. She hopes to go into pediatrics with a focus on global health. One day, she would like to offer medical services in places like Haiti.
"It gets a little overwhelming at times," she said of her workload, "but everything I do I enjoy."
By Vikki Ortiz Healy
Danny Zhuang readily admits he didn't get straight A's in junior high school.
"It was a developing time," explains Zhuang, of Aurora, who used the B's in junior high to push himself toward excellence at Metea Valley High School.
The strategy worked: Zhuang is set to graduate with a 4.75 GPA on a scale of 4.0. He is a National Merit Finalist, a National AP Scholar and has been accepted to Harvard University, where he plans to study economics in the fall.
Those who know the 18-year-old say it's typical to hear him downplay his accomplishments.
"Even though we all know he is brilliant, he is very committed … he is so down-to-earth," said Amanda Pyzik, his guidance counselor at Metea Valley.
The middle child of Peng Wang, a project manager at a telecommunications company, and Qingyu Zhuang, a computer engineer, Zhuang began writing his own computer programs in the fifth grade.
At age 17 he surprised managers at the foreign exchange department of Bank of Montreal Capital Markets when he emailed to offer his programming services. After meeting Zhuang, directors at the company hired him for a full-time internship last summer. They continue to use his services 20 hours per week during the school year.
Despite his computer skills, Zhuang — who also played varsity soccer, competed on the speech team and teaches piano to a student with autism — said he plans to keep an open mind to many career possibilities.
"It's going to be even more exploring" in college, Zhuang said. "I don't want to stay in one place."