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High school MVP

An Academic All-Star who approaches perfection.

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LIKES A CHALLENGE: Stephanie Zhao said that's why she took an organic chemistry course at Harvard University in the summer before her senior year at Pulaski Academy.
  • LIKES A CHALLENGE: Stephanie Zhao said that's why she took an organic chemistry course at Harvard University in the summer before her senior year at Pulaski Academy.

Considering that Little Rock's Stephanie Zhao was almost certainly the most accomplished Arkansas high school student this year, perhaps it makes sense that, when asked to name her proudest accomplishment, she pointed to a college achievement. In the summer before her senior year at Pulaski Academy, she made an A in organic chemistry, a course feared by pre-med majors everywhere, at Harvard. She was the lone high school student in the summer session class. She said her older classmates in organic chemistry "were like, 'Why are you doing this to yourself?' I guess I like a challenge," she told them.

Even among the cream of the crop of high school seniors that have made up the annual Arkansas Times Academic All-Star Team over the last 23 years, Stephanie's cumulative academic achievements stand out (a clerical error left her off the list of All-Stars in April). She received perfect scores on the three major exams used in college admissions, the ACT, SAT and PSAT. She graduated with a 4.7 grade point average after taking every upper level English, Chinese, French, math, science and social science offered at PA. She is a Presidential Scholar, one of two in Arkansas and one of 161 nationally chosen by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars for academic achievement and leadership. She received the $5,000 Stephens Award and was a National Merit Finalist.

Pulaski Academy counselor Cheryl Watts said she was always reluctant to describe any student as "perfect." But with Stephanie, who graduated from PA last week, "everything she does is pretty darn near," Watts said. "She is her own competition. She's always questioning, researching, refining, analyzing. She uses herself to measure success."

Stephanie, an only child, is the daughter of Drs. Ling Gao and Haibo Zhao, who are both researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. (Her father, Dr. Zhao, recently published research on bones that could lead to new treatments for osteoporosis and other diseases. Her mother, Dr. Gao, a dermatologist, recently received a four-year $791,000 grant to research a potential new therapy for a rare skin cancer that is becoming more prevalent.) "I like to say that science is the fourth member of my family," Stephanie said. "Growing up, that would be the conversation at the dinner table. We'd talk about their research. Now, I hear stuff at school that I'd heard at the dinner table, and think, 'Wow, that's cool, I heard about that at home.' "

Stephanie has worked with her mother in her lab for the past couple of years, even earning a co-author credit for research published in the journal Oncotarget. She'll continue to pursue a pre-med path at Harvard in the fall, where she plans to major in chemistry, biochemistry or biology.

"A lot of math and science people tend to only be math and science people," Watts said. "But Stephanie's not like that. She has a compelling curiosity about a wide variety of interests."

Stephanie calls her experience in the PA Amnesty International Club one of her favorite things about high school. The club, which she led as president in her senior year, "forces you to go out in the community and get active." Her primary outreach, as part of Amnesty International, came in volunteering at Dorcas House, a Little Rock domestic violence shelter. She tutored clients who were working toward their GED and gave free piano lessons. She also performed a solo piano recital at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral to raise money for Dorcas House. She raised $6,000.

Volunteering at Dorcas House "changed" Stephanie, she said. "I've never had to deal with anything close to what those women and children have had to deal with." The experience inspired her to write her 70-page senior thesis on domestic violence — the causes, characteristics and history of it.

She carried that sense of duty with her during her summer school experiences at Harvard in 2015 (when she took general chemistry) and 2016 and volunteered at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. While she was taking the notoriously difficult organic chemistry class, the only free time she had available to volunteer at the shelter was the overnight shift on Saturday ("insane," her mom says of her chosen schedule). "I went in at the end of the dinner shift and helped clean up. That was nice because I could talk to the guests. I liked getting to know them and their stories," Stephanie said.

Stephanie said her English and history teachers at Pulaski Academy helped improve her research and writing, particularly William Topich, head of the social sciences department, who Stephanie cited as her most influential teacher in her Presidential Scholar recognition. Topich led her thesis class and encouraged Stephanie to submit to the Concord Review, a quarterly review that publishes excellent academic research papers of high school students. Her history of the Opium Wars is featured in the latest edition. She's submitted another on Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring."

Amid endless studying and volunteering, Stephanie does do normal teenage things. She reads, watches TV and movies, plays the piano and hangs out with friends. But she says her real extracurricular achievement is playing cards. Her games of choice? Nerts and Egyptian Rat Slap.

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