Bright minds shine in Columbia's high schools

Wednesday, January 7, 2009 | 7:26 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Up there, at the top of their classes, they don't have time to   hang out. They're too busy studying, doing extracurricular activities, taking more classes than required.

At the end of the term, they emerge with straight A's. They're perfectionists, the cream of the academic crop in Columbia high schools.

Columbia has 25 National Merit semifinalists.


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Semifinalists are identified by high scores on the PSAT, a test they can take in high school to evaluate their critical reading, math and writing skills.

As Missourians, they needed to score at least 211 out of 240 possible points; the nationwide average for 11th graders in 2006 was 143.

Just 16,000 of the 1.5 million high school students who take the PSAT are named semifinalists. Almost all — about 15,000 — move up to finalist standing by achieving high scores on the SAT and submitting an application with their grades, coursework, an essay and a teacher's recommendation.

If their applications are accepted, they become eligible for scholarships from the National Merit Corporation and other organizations.

Brady Still, Lisa Mao, Ashok Cutkosky, Emma Myers and Abby Sun are five of Columbia's 25 National Merit semifinalists. Two attend Rock Bridge High School, and three go to Hickman. Here are their profiles, a look at five of the 25 National Merit achievers in Columbia.


Brady Still's mother was a straight-A student. "I think she finished, like, 13th in her class," he said.

His father, he said, is "very, very good at history and writing."

But Brady is the first in his family to be a National Merit semifinalist, and his SAT score — 2310 — is above and beyond what his parents earned.

It comes as no surprise, then, that his parents brag about him.

This year the Rock Bridge senior is taking seven Advanced Placement courses: biology, chemistry, psychology, calculus, French, European history and English literature.

Why such a heavy load when his nearly golden GPA — 3.97 — hangs in the balance and when he has college applications to finalize?

"The reason I push myself is I've always done well in school," he said. "And I know I can do the work in all these classes individually. Most of them aren't that difficult for me."

The AP courses will fulfill some general-education requirements in his first year of college, allowing him to enjoy a more substantial social life. For now, he tries to keep Friday nights reserved for movies at friends' houses. 

Aside from his schoolwork, he facilitates discussions among members of his school's Student Coalition, a governing board for the student body. He is also regularly in communication with Rock Bridge administrators.

Not to mention that he volunteers at the Central Missouri Food Bank.

He is hoping his first choice, Carleton College, a liberal-arts school in Northfield, Minn., accepts him. If he becomes a National Merit finalist, he could receive $2,000 a year for tuition.


Lisa Mao has always set high standards for herself.

"I'm angry if I don't match the standards that I want to meet," she said.

Her parents know that, so there is no need to push her.

She knows what she wants. For one thing, she wants to be as good as, if not better than, her friend Brady Still.

Lisa recently learned that her application to Stanford for early admission had been deferred. Her friend, Brady, submitted a regular application but had not yet heard back.

"If you get in," Lisa told Brady, "I'm gonna have to kill you."

Admission to Stanford is not the only sore point between them. Her GPA is a hundredth of a point lower than his, and he edged her out by one point on the PSAT.

Don't get her wrong. She's says she's not a perfectionist.

"I don't freak out if I get a B on a test or something," said Lisa, who was born near Shanghai in China. "I just work harder."

She also doesn't spend all her time on schoolwork. She plays mallets for the Rock Bridge marching band and is a member of the school's Model United Nations team. She also volunteers at Boone Hospital.

At home she reads novels and writes her own.

Although she said she would like to publish a book one day, her main goal is to become a psychologist. She is also applying to Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

That she received one of the highest PSAT scores in Missouriis no big deal.

"All I did was take a test, you know? It was like, 'OK, I can take tests,'" she said. "I'm not changing anyone's life."


A few weeks ago, Hickman High School senior Ashok Cutkosky flew to New York City to present a mathematical discovery.

Dressed in a suit and tie and armed with a Power Point clicker, Ashok took the stage at the 2008 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, held at New York University.

"Hello, my name is Ashok Cutkosky," he said to the audience, "and it is my unmitigated pleasure to be finally giving my presentation."

The audience laughed. He smiled. He spent 20 minutes explaining, in a language understood only by those well-versed in math, his project: "Associated Primes of the Square of the Alexander Dual of Hypergraphs."

The Siemens Foundation awarded Ashok the Region 3 Silver Medal, which came with a $20,000 scholarship.

The victory garnered media coverage around the world. By the time he returned to Columbia, he was a small-time celebrity.

It's not the first time he's won a math competition since he began entering them in fourth grade.

For years, his father, MU math professor Dale Cutkosky, gave him practice tests for the competitions he found on the Internet.

"Which at the time I often found a bit annoying," Ashok said, "but it seems to have helped a great deal, so I'm grateful for it now."

Indeed, the training paid off. Not only did he score a 236 on his PSAT —   one question short of perfect — but he got a perfect score on his SAT. As a result, he was named one of Hickman's 18 National Merit semifinalists.

"It's possible (being named a) National Merit semifinalist has helped me get into college, but ... I would've gotten into some college, I think," he said.

Last month, Ashok was accepted to Stanford. He says he'll probably end up  there.


Emma Myers might be the one in her graduating class who gets to work for NASA.

She wants to attend the University of Arizona and become an astrophysicist.

As a senior at Hickman, she said she's surrounded by people who are beginning to slack off, a symptom of "senioritis."

And Emma?

"I can't really do that," she said.

Life for her is hectic. School takes up plenty of time, with her heavy course load this year — AP chemistry, AP physics, AP calculus, AP Spanish, British literature and orchestra — but not nearly all of it.

She has an internship with Angela Speck, a physics and astronomy professor at MU. In autumn, she runs cross-country; in spring, she runs track.

A strong work ethic helps.

"I really try not to procrastinate, because it just makes life hard," she said. "I don't like to be rushed at the last minute."

Yes, people call her a perfectionist, but achievements like National Merit semifinalist status don't go to her head.

"It wasn't that big of a deal," she said.


Abby Sun took the PSAT four years ago and scored a 228, but she didn't study for the test.

"It sounds really pretentious, but I wasn't really worried about it at all," she said.  "I've always been good at multiple-choice tests."

Both of her parents are statistics professors at MU. Her father has been helping her become an excellent test-taker since she was in fifth grade, when she took the  Missouri Council of Teachers of Mathematics Contest. She had taken it for the first time in fourth grade and didn't tell her parents.

Now she maintains a 4.0 GPA.

"Most of my friends have 4.0s, too," she said.

Abby is surrounded by similarly high-performing students — at lunch she and others meet in a conference room at Hickman as part of a gifted-education program called "Triple E". That keeps her motivated to succeed at school, she said.

She is willing to admit to her dorkiness, as long as she's not pigeonholed.

"My life is really heavy on the academics," Abby said. "Let's get that out. But other than that, I really like clothes and stuff.

"I'm probably the shallowest out of all the people who have 4.0s at Hickman. ... Well, maybe I'm not that shallow, but I wear really strange clothes at school."

One recent night, she was wearing a black Mu Alpha Zeta jacket, illustrating her leadership in the math honors society for high school students.

It's something of an issue for Abby's parents.

Not that they object to her membership in the society, she explained, but "they really want me to go into statistics, and this is math." 

She has not set her mind on a career in mathematics, though. If she is admitted to Yale, she might major in economics, evolutionary biology or painting.

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