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Gifted and talented

Mizzou nurtures townie kids

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: Oct. 24, 2011
Methma Udawatta, Nicholas Sun and Christina Wang

Columbia high school students Nicholas Sun (left), Methma Udawatta and Christina Wang recently aced the ACT, scoring a perfect 36. All three academically gifted students have turned to Mizzou for supplemental learning, including courses, internships and research opportunities. 

What’s it like being a professor’s kid? Some high-achieving high school students, each of whom recently scored a perfect 36 on the ACT, are proving it’s pretty cool.

Methma Udawatta, Nicholas Sun and Christina Wang say their Mizzou connections added experiences beyond the norm.

The three seniors at Columbia’s Rock Bridge High School — who are National Merit Scholarship semifinalists as well as ACT standouts — took advantage of the perks a college town offers.  

Starting early in childhood, the students visited MU museums and libraries.  

Later they worked as volunteers — University Hospital is a popular choice — and attended seminars, lectures and get-acquainted stays on campus. Methma describes her experience with the Missouri Scholars Academy at MU as “some of the best three weeks of my life.”

As they matured, the ACT aces — Christina also scored a perfect 2,400 on the SAT — enrolled in advanced classes at Mizzou and found research opportunities with mentor professors and graduate students. 

Research ready

Intellectually curious high school students are ready for college-level research experiences, says Jake Giessman, co-director of Columbia Public Schools’ Center for Gifted Education.

“The lion's share of students we work with have parents who work for the university. Without Mizzou, we would neither have such a large gifted program nor such excellent opportunities for our students,” Giessman says.

In Assistant Professor Laura Schulz’s lab in the MU School of Medicine, Christina — daughter of economics Professor X.H. Wang — prepares and analyzes slides of mouse kidneys for a study on maternal perinatal nutrition.

After making a site visit to the lab, Giessman described the scene: “They were all, Dr. Schulz included, working at the same bench as Tina, bouncing between questions about high school, baseball and histotechnology (preparation of animal tissue samples for microscopic examination). For Tina, the experience is exhilarating.”

Early research experiences are pretty standard for the district’s most-motivated high school students.

Nicholas — son of statistics Professor Tony Sun — worked on nanopore detectors with Associate Professor Andrew Gu at Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center. Methma studied nanoparticles with Assistant Professor Raghuraman Kannan in the Department of Radiology.

At Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools, 32 students take a for-credit internship called Advanced Seminar and Investigations, with 22 of the students doing Mizzou-affiliated research. They investigate topics such as breast cancer, detection of melanoma, geoscience, psychology and bioinformatics.

But even those numbers don’t tell the whole story because students not formally enrolled as interns have MU associations as well. Two students, for example, are working on patentable technologies at the University Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Maxed out on math

The professor parents of Columbia’s ACT stars say their kids’ lives have been filled with what they consider just ordinary activities — reading, studying and discussing interesting subjects — plus parental encouragement.

Methma’s dad, Associate Research Professor Ranjith Udawatta, with the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, says he and his wife did for Methma what most parents do for a child: “We clapped at the small steps,“ he says.

Of course, none of these kids’ steps seems particularly “small.” Methma was performing at such a high level in elementary school that she skipped a grade, and her mathematics skills are equally out of the ordinary.

Bright students often max out on math courses offered in high school, so looking to Mizzou for advanced classes is not uncommon, and it cuts costs for high schools. 

Nicholas and Methma are dual enrolled at Rock Bridge and at Mizzou, where they study Calculus 3. If they take Differential Equations next semester, they’ll be close to completing university minors in mathematics before graduating from high school. 

Dual enrollment gives students a head start on earning college credits while simultaneously earning high school credits. Mathematics, foreign languages and bioethics are typical courses the students take at Mizzou. One student completed 18 hours his senior year and entered college as a second-semester sophomore.

“We have connections in most areas of campus. That’s not necessarily a formal program, but it’s a way to fill a student’s need.” says Marilyn Toalson, teacher of Columbia’s gifted students. “The professors work with us because they like our students and because they’re good people who want to help.”

An open door for bright kids 

Mizzou opportunities for pre-college students are not limited to professors’ children; they are open to all bright, motivated kids. The choices Christina, Methma and Nicholas selected indicate the variety of options:   

All three have attended the Saturday Morning Science lectures, which have become a staple for the Columbia School District’s gifted students.

Christina investigated medical careers through MU’s Healthcare Elite program; observed in L.W. Reneker's ophthalmology lab at the Mason Eye Clinic; and attended last summer’s Audrey Walton Youth Leadership Conference.

With the ACT stars’ impressive academic résumés, it’s easy to forget they’re still teenagers who want to have fun. Sometimes even their recreational activities link to Mizzou.

“I go to the Green Tennis Center and had sessions with the tennis coaches. When I was younger, we would hang out at the gym,” says Nicholas, who plays on the Rock Bridge tennis team.

Christina is head drum major in the Rock Bridge marching band and plays the flute in the concert band. For three years, she played the flute in the Missouri Youth Orchestra, sponsored by the MU School of Music. If she had needed private lessons, they were available, too.

Life is good in a college town.

Read more in:  On CampusScience & TechnologyFamily & CommunityBeyond CampusEducation

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012