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Fostering Her Talent

Photo by Connor Raborn

NATIONAL MERIT -- St. Thomas Aquinas senior Rachael White stands in front of her school and stands on the verge of potentially being named a finalist for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship. She plans to major in medical physics, possibly at University of Chicago.

by Connor Raborn reporter@hammondstar.com

Rachael White prepared the few weeks leading up to the PSAT to see how well she could do, not expecting to progress into consideration for the National Merit Scholarship.

Last month, White, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Catholic High School, was named a National Merit semifinalist with around 16,000 other students in the U.S. In the month since then, she has already completed her finalist application, recommendation and essay that will qualify her as a finalist for the $2,500 national scholarship.

She was "super excited" to find out she was a semifinalist, but she would be "ecstatic" if awarded the scholarship, she said.

"I didn't really think I could get into semifinalist status," White said. "I did study for it, because I wanted to see how well I could do on it. It was surprisingly fun."

Her regimen consisted of daily visits to Sims Memorial Library at Southeastern Louisiana University, and math was a particular focus.

Her technique was making flashcards of math problems she missed on practice tests and drilling them during study time.

Her practice paid off, and she felt prepared, especially for math, when it was time to brandish the No. 2 pencils and fill in the scan sheets.

She has found she enjoys math and may be interested in studying it through the lens of her true academic passion: physics. That's the field of study White plans to pursue in college, and she wants to eventually focus on medical physics.

"I've always loved science; I've always been a science person. I love solving problems," she said. "I would say though art and science have had an equal influence in me."

This eclectic background has paved the way for White to be a great scientist, according to her English teacher Alexandra Burris.

"She has a huge passion for the humanities. She's a brilliant artist. She is a meticulous writer," Burris said. "If she does become a scientist, she will be a scientist with a great understanding of the human person."

White's semifinalist status was initially confidential. Her parents were the first to hear it from her, but a few of her teachers knew before she told them.

"I was very glad they did, because they're very special to me," White said. "Nobody else knew, and it was crazy. I felt like I was waiting for the rest of the world to find out."

White actively seeks interpersonal connections with her teachers, as she finds them to be a source of influence, advice and extracurricular learning. She spent part of her morning Wednesday chatting with her physics teacher, Chris Lundberg, about a physics TED Talk she saw.

Lundberg, who has taught White advanced placement physics, chemistry and statistics, said he was very pleased to hear she was a semifinalist but not surprised.

"She has a lot of innate academic gifts. She's very curious," Lundberg said. "She does a lot of background research before I even get to a topic. Once a topic's been discussed in class, she does independent research. She has this natural drive."

Physics research was White's initial area of interest, but a friend in a dual Ph.D.-M.D. track exposed her to the idea of being able to combine that with practical, modern applications of physics.

"She's really intelligent, but she works really hard which is her best gift by far," Lundberg said. "The students who make the biggest impression on me are the ones who foster their talents, who put in the effort to really grow as individuals."

White participated in a two-week physics course at University of Chicago this past summer, and she has already applied to attend there as a college student. It was also there that she learned modern topics in physics like electromagnetism that excited her to explore their practical applications.

"If I ended up at that school, it would be amazing," she said.

She cited the library -- where she worked and read during the two weeks -- and the three campus bookstores as additional perks.

For future National Merit hopefuls, White's advice is to utilize all available resources, especially teachers.

"Ask questions whenever you get the chance. Meet with your teachers when you have a question," she said.

Teaching is another professional field she'd like to pursue.

"I could see myself teaching, because when I understand something I really enjoy helping other people understand it," she said.