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updated: 7/21/2011 5:05 AM

Naperville teen among nation's top chemistry students

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  • Nolan Maloney of Naperville, an incoming senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, shows off the 44 science medals he's won since junior high school. Nolan was one of 20 semifinalists for the U.S. chemistry team this year.

       Nolan Maloney of Naperville, an incoming senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, shows off the 44 science medals he's won since junior high school. Nolan was one of 20 semifinalists for the U.S. chemistry team this year.
    Rick Majewski | Staff Photographer

  • Nolan Maloney, an incoming senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, works on a fractional distillation experiment.

       Nolan Maloney, an incoming senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, works on a fractional distillation experiment.
    Rick Majewski | Staff Photographer

  • Nolan Maloney, of Naperville, a student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, was the only high school student from Illinois who made the top 20 at the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad.

       Nolan Maloney, of Naperville, a student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, was the only high school student from Illinois who made the top 20 at the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad.
    Rick Majewski | Staff Photographer

 

It's not often that professors tell their students to skip school.

But that's what Nao Ikegaki, an associate professor of histology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggested for Nolan Maloney, an incoming senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.

"(My wife and I) are telling Nolan to just skip high school and college and go right into medical school or a Ph.D. in chemistry," Ikegaki said. "I can talk to him almost about anything. His understanding is quite high. He reads journal articles published in scientific journals with no problem. That's amazing in high school."

Nolan, a Naperville native, has worked with Ikegaki on neuroblastoma research since the fall, first for an independent class project and now on his own during the summer. Neuroblastoma is a cancer of the nervous system that affects infants and children.

Nolan's name is listed among the co-authors of a research paper presented by Ikegaki at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in April. Their research focuses on finding drugs that deactivate proteins produced by the MYCN gene, which is amplified in neuroblastoma patients. An unassuming 17-year-old, Nolan says he does plan to go to college, although he's still not sure what to study. The only thing he knows for sure is that he is determined to contribute something positive to the world.

"There are so many options, and a lot of them are appealing," Nolan said. "It will be something that will help improve the condition of people's lives."

People who know him are sure he'll follow through.

In May, Nolan was among a select group of 20 high-schoolers nationwide -- out of an initial pool of about 11,000 -- who made the semifinals for the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad. All attended a rigorous 10-day chemistry camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., before the final selection.

"They are the future Einsteins. They are going to make the future scientific breakthroughs," camp head mentor Kris Fletcher said of Nolan and his peers. "Whether in chemistry, medicine, physics, they will be the leaders of our country. They will be the future Nobel Prize winners. They are truly, truly gifted."

Nolan distinguished himself for his ability to work hard in a stressful situation and stand tall when confronted with his own limitations, Fletcher said. "A lot of times, these are students top in their class, top in the state, and when they are around their peers, there is a deterioration of their confidence," she said. "Nolan, he just took things in stride, recognized what his strengths were and acknowledged his weaknesses. It made him stronger instead of falling apart."

Failure is just an opportunity to grow further, Nolan said. "Disappointment is all about how you view it. You can choose to see something as a minor setback, or as a source of new motivation," he said.

Ever since he was a little kid, something about science just clicked for him, said Nolan, whose mother, Tracy, works in accounting and whose father, Miles, works for the state department of labor.

"Maybe it's something about the logic. It just works for me. There is a sense of accomplishment when you learn about new things," Nolan said.

His motivation to study hard and go the extra distance -- for years he's sought additional textbooks beyond his class curriculum -- is just the enjoyment he gets out of science, he said.

"My philosophy is that if you enjoy it, you should keep going. But yes, it takes a ton of hard work."

Nolan attended Naperville North High School as a freshman and was admitted to IMSA his sophomore year. IMSA is a highly competitive school that admits only about 30 percent of applicants based on factors like their GPAs, SAT math scores, essays, teachers' recommendations and activities, officials said.

Last year, Nolan was captain of IMSA's Science Bowl team, which placed third in the state. He also made it to the Science Bowl his freshman and sophomore years with teams that won state both times. Over the years, he has collected 37 science Olympiad medals, both at the state and national level.

Tracy Maloney said that as proud as she is of her son's accomplishments, she and her husband have always tried to teach Nolan and his sister, a medical school student, that character is what counts.

"He's a nice kid. That's the most important thing," she said. "No matter the achievements (my children) have, how they treat their family and how they treat others is what is important."

Nolan is a laid-back student who doesn't get a big head from his accomplishments, said Anita White, Nolan's organic chemistry I and II teacher at IMSA.

"He was one student that just kind of got it from the beginning. It didn't take a lot of explaining for him to get it," she said. "Although he had a lot of other things going on, he still managed to maintain his wonderful performance."

IMSA President Max McGee said Nolan really believes in the school's mission to advance the human condition.

"Nolan is one of these students who just stands out. He is thrilled by discovery and exploration, and realizes he really can make a contribution," McGee said. "He has a rare combination of extraordinary intellect and capacity to learn, combined with humility and sense of wonder and awe of the larger world. I think those characteristics will continue to make him a scientist and have a career that really will make our world a better place."

• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl are always looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to standouts@dailyherald.com.

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