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Making a Science of Success

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Susan Shaw briefly pondered the question. Embarrassed, she looked downward. Then she responded in her soft, melodic voice: “Yes, I guess this has been a good year for me.”

The 17-year-old Villa Park High School senior’s answer was, typically, an understatement. Her 1995-96 school year might objectively be called exceptional.

Last fall, she was captain of Villa Park High’s girls tennis team, which won the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division II championship. A few weeks ago, she and her school learned that she had scored a perfect 1600 on her Scholastic Assessment Test for college entrance.

And this week, Shaw was notified that she is among 40 high school students in the nation picked as finalists in the Westinghouse National Science Talent Search. The Westinghouse event is one of the oldest and most prestigious science contests for high school students. Five previous Westinghouse finalists have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

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Shaw won a finalist position for her state award-winning science fair project involving human hearing and on the basis of questionnaires. A panel of scientists selected the finalists. Five other California high school students made the cut, but Shaw is the only one from Orange County.

“She’s just a wonderful student,” Villa Park High Principal Dan Burch said Tuesday. “She was picked by her [tennis] teammates to be their captain. And she’s also active on the school newspaper.”

Burch added that Shaw is modest about her accomplishments. Despite her breathtaking SAT score, Burch said, Shaw “worries about whether she’ll be able to get into a university with a good medical program--she’s interested in medical research.”

Officials of Science Service, a nonprofit Washington organization that administers the Westinghouse talent search, said that one benefit of being a finalist is that all major colleges and universities are notified of the names of winners.

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Finalists also get a minimum $1,000 scholarship and compete during an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington in March for a top award of $40,000. Finalists also tour the White House and are honored guests at a congressional reception.

Shaw lives in Orange with her parents, David and Judy Shaw, and her brother, Jeremy, 15. Her parents immigrated from Taiwan in 1977, and she was born in Los Angeles in 1978. The family has lived in Orange County for 10 years.

Shaw learned she was a finalist on Monday, but Westinghouse did not publicly announce the winners until Tuesday.

“I was extremely surprised and very happy,” said Shaw. “It was a shock.”

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Science is a major interest for her, Shaw said. But she added that the interest took time to evolve. “In my early grades, I wasn’t that good at it,” she said.

Shaw said that she’s not sure which university she’d like to attend but that she’d seek an academic program that leads to biomedical research.

But while science is a dominant interest in her life, it is not her entire world.

“I like writing,” she said. “I’ve done some reporting for our school paper, the Oracle, and now I’m one of the news editors. I like to read. I like running and swimming. And I go out every now and then.”

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Burch noted that Villa Park High has long had an outstanding science program, with award-winning teachers. But Shaw’s national achievement is an extraordinary triumph for the school, he said.

“We’re just so excited and proud of her,” Burch said. “She’s worked hard through her entire career to reach the goals she has. . . . It’s tremendous to see her rewarded for this.”

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Tapping Talent

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The Westinghouse National Science Talent Search is an annual contest for students completing their final year in high school. Some facts about the program:

* This is the program’s 55th year; it is among the oldest high school science competitions in the United States.

* The sponsor is the Westinghouse Foundation, a branch of Westinghouse Electric Corp.

* Science Service, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, administers the program.

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* Judges are prominent national scientists and this year included Dudley Herschbach of Harvard University, a 1986 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.

* Finalists win scholarships of at least $1,000 and the chance to compete for awards of up to $40,000.

* This year’s 40 finalists came from 12 states. Six of them, including Villa Park High School’s Susan Shaw, are Californians. Other California winners are from Alhambra, North Hollywood, Fresno, Palo Alto and Saratoga.

Source: Westinghouse National Science Talent Search

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