For those who know him, it is not difficult to imagine Richard D. Kim one day winning a Nobel Prize.
The 17-year-old is his high school’s valedictorian, scored a perfect 1600 on the college-entrance Scholastic Assessment Test and will attend Harvard University in the fall to study biochemistry. He also earned a 4.9 grade-point average at Villa Park High School and a slew of academic honors.
But whether he some day wins a Nobel, Richard will at least have the satisfaction of attending one of the prize ceremonies in Sweden. In December, he will take an expenses-paid trip to Stockholm to view the awarding of the Nobel Prizes and meet dignitaries, after winning the statewide Earnest O. Lawrence Nobel Travel Award this week.
Richard beat four finalists who were interviewed by UC Berkeley scientist and Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg, who coordinates the award, named for Berkeley’s first Nobel laureate, under the auspices of the Lawrence Hall of Science.
“It’s a big, big honor to win that [Nobel Travel] award,” said Villa Park High Principal Dan Burch. “Dr. Seaborg is among the most prominent scientists in the country. Just to meet him is an honor, and that was what Richard wanted to do: just sit and discuss one on one with Dr. Seaborg. Richard is a very humble young man. He doesn’t go into these things to win. It just so happens he does.”
Richard said Friday that he looks forward to meeting scientists from around the world.
“So much of science is now done by groups,” Richard said. “The popular belief is thinking of individuals [involved in science], but in reality it’s a lot of team and group discoveries. So I think getting this international perspective will be very important. I want to talk to these people about where they see society progressing.”
Richard became eligible for the Nobel Travel Award competition--started 12 years ago as a memorial to Lawrence--because of his biochemistry research last year at UC Irvine. Burch said Richard’s complicated studies at UCI “involved microbiology and the assembling, breaking apart and reassembling of things.” Burch added that a UCI faculty member “referred to Richard’s work as being on an equal caliber to a doctoral candidate.”
To win the Berkeley award, students talked with Seaborg and other academics, who assessed the candidates’ knowledge of a range of subjects, not just science.
Richard’s other honors this past school year include a $1,500 study grant from the California Museum of Science and Industry, a first place in individual competition among countywide Academic Decathlon team members and a first-place award of $2,000 in the Bank of America’s language arts regional competition in Orange and Riverside counties.
In between, he has headed Villa Park High’s volunteer work for the American Red Cross, worked on the school newspaper, taken several college-level courses at Rancho Santiago College and earned a black belt in taekwondo. His hobbies include playing and teaching the violin and “a lot of pick-up basketball games.”
Carol Mooney, an advanced-placement English teacher and Academic Decathlon coach at Villa Park High, said Richard won a special honor Thursday night. “As valedictorian, Richard gave a speech during our school’s Medallion Night,” she said. “He got a spontaneous standing ovation, and it was led by students, not the adults. I’ve never seen that before.”
Mooney said Richard is very bright in studies other than science. “His favorite class, ironically, is history,” she said. “He really enjoys tangling with ideas.”
Richard is the son of Michael Kim, a dentist, and Hae Young Kim, a choir director. He has a sister, Tracey, 16. The family lives in Villa Park.
Richard said his family and Villa Park High have been instrumental in his success: “My parents have given me incredible emotional support and a very strong foundation in Christianity.”
After Harvard, Richard said, he plans to go into medicine, possibly doing research. “I want to help others,” he said. “A belief that I hold is that if it’s not done for others, it’s not worth doing.”
Mooney, who has taught Richard since his freshman year, said altruism is very much a part of his character.
“He is amazing,” she said. “Richard is genuinely a good person. He cares about his fellow man.”