MY WORD: High achiever ready to soar higher

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By Duanne B. Puckett

Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science at Western Kentucky University will enroll its third student from Shelby County Public Schools when the 2011-2012 school year begins next fall.

Sam Saarinen, a sophomore at Shelby County High School, has been selected for the incoming junior class and for the 2013 graduating class. Sam, the son of Tim and Anne Saarinen is following in the footsteps of Chris Obermeyer, who is now at Duke University, and Katherine Goebel, who graduates this spring.

“It is an opportunity of personal development to pursue with more freedom the things I want,” Saarinen said.

What he wants is more physics and sciences...a passion that has always appealed to him. “Physics allows me to see the world as it is. By definition, it is how the world works at a very concrete and absolute scale,” he said.

Being accepted to the Gatton Academy is a prestigious honor with tough standards. However, Sam smiled and humbly replied, “I cannot remember a time when I did poorly academically. I have heard stories about my teaching myself math and about being excited to read restaurant menus long before I was in school.”

He is a sophomore with straight A’s and currently is enrolled in calculus. “I have an inherent aptitude; I cannot take credit all the way,” he said.

His mother was a chemical engineer, and his father works in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which the Internet defined as “becoming the pre-eminent technique for determining the structure of organic compounds...”

However, Sam described it, when asked for layman’s terms, as using “a scientific instrument that will track ions and molecules and how they react in a magnetic field – similar to an MRI.”

He said he has grown up wanting to be an artist, a detective, a chemist...“anything of which I was usually capable and that was important to society...and that was something I enjoyed.”

Artist: Sam sang in the school choir, has played the piano since fifth grade and played the oboe in the school band. “Being an author appeals to me now,” he added, saying it is, “a chance to create something larger than self....Ideas are out there and can be perpetuated for generations to come....It’s a form of validation to express what I am inside and see what makes me human.”

Detective: He read every Hardy Boys mystery book in the Wright Elementary Library starting in kindergarten. He smiled as he said, “I loved the danger and risk that the Hardy Boys personified.... Ultimately, however, it is the application of cold, hard logic to pursue below the surface.”

Chemist: This career reflects his “underlying desire to be a scientist... to discover something...to push back the bounds of ignorance.” That desire started at age 5 to examine “the fundamental change of nature and how things behave....By 7 or 8, I had my own microscope, which was much more than a toy – it was my pursuing the quest for understanding, which led to my continued interest in this field.”

By seventh grade, he spent an entire month, each afternoon, teaching himself quantum mechanics through Internet searches.

He admitted, however, that the idea of attending the Gatton Academy was turned down when he was approached in middle school by his Talented And Gifted teacher Kathie Wrightson.

He and his parents only considered it a “viable option” after a tour of the Bowling Green campus when Sam was recognized as a seventh-grader for his national recognition in the Duke University Talent Identification Program.

He commended his school teachers for never holding him back and his parents for being “inexhaustible resources...but I am personally driven and would be successful even if I were from a low-income family in the lowest-performing school.”

He even called his younger sister Emma “more intelligent and resilient than I with a strong desire to become her own person.”

Sam grinned when asked about his parents’ change in heart about leaving home for the last two years of high school education. “They believe that at this stage, this is what is best for me... Plus I learned at a very early age that I could take care of myself. Those skills [cooking and washing clothes] are learnable.”

He does not feel “any trepidation” about going to Gatton, comparing the level of anxiety similar to a choral concert or writing a short story.

He does realize, “I am under pressure to perform individually and comparatively but time and time again, I have done that. Failure isn’t failure until you stop trying....All I have to do is execute my skills and fulfill my dream.”


Duanne B. Puckett is the community relations coordinator for Shelby County Public Schools.