First class of All-Stars finds diverse paths

Ten years ago, the Journal-World’s first group of Academic All-Stars had big dreams.

A couple of them wanted to be chemical engineers. Some thought about getting medical degrees. One even wanted to be an astronaut, while another had plans to teach high school biology.

Did they make it?

The Journal-World tracked down the original eight all-stars from 1997 and found most had taken different paths from what they expected – but all are happy about how their lives are shaping up as they approach their 30s.

Jennifer Carnes

At age 18, Jennifer Carnes was a straight-A student at Santa Fe High School in Carbondale. She was headed to the University of Minnesota on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, which she hoped would propel her on to NASA.

But Carnes’ career hopes to become an astronaut came to a halt midway – partly because of 2 inches.

“Part of why I left ROTC was they didn’t look like they were going to change the height requirements for pilots,” Carnes said, laughing. “You had to be 5-4. I’m only 5-2.”

Carnes said she changed focus and began working toward a degree in international studies, learning Japanese and Russian. After a couple of years, she decided to return to Kansas and attend Kansas University.

But she never finished her degree.

“If I went back to KU, I would be a semester away from my political science degree,” she said. “And I would be that semester and a third year of Japanese away from my second degree (in East Asian studies). So if I really pushed, I could do it.”

In 2000, Carnes started working at Hollywood Video in Topeka, where she became a manager.

In 2005, she decided to transfer to the Hollywood Video store in Minneapolis, Minn., which she now manages.

“I don’t know if that’s what I’m going to stay with forever. I’m working on becoming a district manager right now, trying to do some of the training and stuff to get myself prepared for that. It’s a really good company,” she said. “So if I do stay with retail management, this is probably where I would stay.”

Megan Gripka

When asked about a career 10 years ago, Megan Gripka talked about being a high school biology teacher.

At the time, she was the top-ranked student at Tonganoxie High School. And her goal was to study biology at KU, then teach biology.

Gripka did study biology, earning a bachelor’s degree from KU in 2001.

But while at KU, she changed her mind about teaching.

“I started to develop an interest in health care,” she said. She focused on clinical laboratory science.

While studying, she worked at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and saw working there as her “dream job.”

After graduating, she went to work at a hospital in Charleston, S.C., then moved back to Kansas.

Her first job was in the lab at St. Luke’s Hospital. Then she went to work at a lab at Children’s Mercy, where she specializes in microbiology and molecular testing.

Gripka, 28, who is single and lives in Kansas City’s Plaza area, said her advice to junior high and high school students is to keep an open mind.

“Try a lot of different things, and eventually you’ll find out what you want to do,” she said.

Mark Hammel

As he finished his high school senior year 10 years ago, Mark Hammel thought about going to medical school and becoming a pediatrician.

He was first in his class at Perry-Lecompton High School. And he had a scholarship to KU, where he planned to enter the pre-medicine program.

But his career took a different path.

Hammel, who worked full time at SuperTarget as a manager while going to school, started out in pre-med for two years.

In May 1999, he married Brandi Adam, of Lawrence, and the couple moved to Ogden, Utah, where he attended the University of Phoenix for three months.

The couple moved to Overland Park three months later, and he continued working for SuperTarget there and going to school full time. He began seeking a bachelor’s degree in business administration through Baker University.

In 2000, he started working at U.S. Central Federal Credit Union in Lenexa in information technology. He continued attending Baker University, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business in 2001 and an MBA from Baker in 2004. He did all that while working a full-time job.

“I thrived on it,” he said. “Anything else, I was bored.”

He has continued working in IT at Central, where he is a “jack of all trades” in the department and is an expert on the Automated Clearing House software the company provides, handling service for more than 2,000 credit unions across the country.

“I’m the support for the support personnel,” he said.

Hammel said his life didn’t go the way he thought it would, “but I think I stopped trying to make those goals fit such a rigid plan. I became more flexible.”

He has two stepdaughters, Brantlie, now 16; and Karlee, now 13.

“And we had a baby last June,” he said. That daughter, Ashlyn, is nearly 9 months old. And his wife is expecting another child later this year.

Jerrell Herod

After high school, Jerrell Herod wanted to do something different from his parents, who were both pharmacists in Lawrence.

Herod went to Kansas University, where he had a full academic scholarship, and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering in 2001.

During his junior year at KU, he thought about becoming a doctor or a researcher, which led him to consider going into biomedical research.

After graduating from KU, he took a job at Merck & Co. Inc. in Raleigh, N.C., where he worked for two years doing genetic research for the company’s version of an HIV vaccine.

While working at Merck, he decided to go to medical school because he wanted to work with patients.

He said he was accepted into several medical schools, but decided to attend Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Now 28 and single, he will graduate in May with a medical degree.

He just found out on Thursday that he will be performing an internal medicine residency at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

He wants to be an interventional cardiologist.

“I think even before I left Kansas, I’ve always been obsessed with how the heart works,” Herod said.

His advice to young students is to consider a variety of careers.

“Explore. Find mentors,” he said.

Luke Lang

While a senior at Wellsville High School, Luke Lang thought about being a business major at KU, then going on to medical school and eventually settling down in a small town.

He did end up settling in a small town: Holton.

But his career took a turn toward numbers instead of medicine; he’s a math teacher at Holton High School.

He turned to math while at KU.

“I found a good niche for that in teaching,” he said.

He graduated in 2001 and has been teaching in Holton for four years.

In 2003, he began graduate school at KU and received a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 2005.

Lang teaches algebra and Advanced Placement calculus. He also teaches math courses at Highland Community College.

He married in 2002. His wife, Jennifer, a former Tonganoxie music teacher, stays at home with their daughter, Sophia, 18 months.

He encourages teenagers to find what they like to do and build their careers around it.

“Find your niche and fit things to it,” he said.

Lang leads worship and teaches Sunday school at the Denison Bible Church near Holton. He thinks about becoming a minister.

“I haven’t ruled out the idea,” he said. “I’m happy being a father and a teacher right now.”

Justin Poplin

After graduating from Baldwin High School, Justin Poplin was interested in becoming a chemical engineer.

But his career path took a couple of turns – first from chemical engineering to mechanical engineering. Then to law.

Poplin is now a patent attorney for the Lathrop and Gage law firm in Kansas City, Mo.

He said after entering KU on a scholarship, he took chemical engineering classes. He decided to switch his major to mechanical engineering. Those classes got him thinking strongly about becoming a patent attorney.

After graduating from KU in 2001, he went to law school at the University of Georgia, where he received a law degree in 2003.

In June, he got married to Elizabeth Weltz, of Overland Park. They live in Kansas City, Mo.

Poplin said he was surprised at how his career turned out.

“I really had no idea I would get into legal work,” he said. “I’m extremely pleased at how it’s turned out. … I really plan to keep doing patent work.”

Christine Rieder

Of the eight Academic All-Stars in 1997, Christine Rieder is the only one who stayed with the same dream. She’s now a chemical engineer in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The Lawrence High School graduate went to Kansas University on scholarships and earned her bachelor’s degree in 2002 in chemical engineering, with a double major in international studies.

That same year, she took a job with Flint Hills Resources, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, which is based in Wichita.

“I’m a process engineer and also hold a position in the logistics group,” Rieder said.

Her job requires her to make sure the equipment is operating. She troubleshoots problems and deals with people in all levels of the company, from the equipment operators to management.

She’s also taking classes in an effort to get a master’s degree in business administration from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

She will graduate from that program in May.

She said she wanted an MBA degree “because I work in an industry that is very business-oriented.”

Her advice to high school and junior high students is to pursue their education as far as they can.

“It’s my education that has gotten me a job that I love,” she said. “It gives me something challenging to focus on every day.”

Still single, she said she likes living in Corpus Christi, but might eventually like to return to the Lawrence area, where her parents live.

Daniel Smith

Ten years ago at LHS, Dan Smith had a wide range of interests. He was the best trombone player in the state, he worked a part-time job, he played sports and was planning to study pre-medical biology at Emporia State University.

In a roundabout way, his career and dreams went the way he thought they would.

The J-W was lucky to catch him last week; he was busy finishing up a doctorate in physical therapy at KU Medical Center.

“It’s something of a parable about following your dreams, figuring out what you want and going for it,” he said.

As an undergrad, he started out at Emporia State with a pre-medical biology major. Midway through school, he switched his major to business computer information systems.

“The CIS degree was, mainly, about going for the quick money,” he said. “Of course it didn’t work out that way, since the tech market really didn’t cooperate at the time.”

When he graduated, Sprint was laying off qualified experienced computer information systems people in droves, and he wasn’t able to find a job. So he went to work for First National Bank in Overland Park, where he worked until last year.

“In short, I found that sitting in the cubicle without human contact wasn’t for me; even in CIS, I saw that computers, and not people, would be my primary interface with the world,” he said. “That wasn’t going to work for me, so I went for a field with lots of people contact, one in which I knew I could make a difference on a personal level also.”

He started taking classes again part-time to get a physical therapy degree in fall 2004. In June, he began rubbing shoulders with medical students at the KUMC while getting his own DPT degree.

“I’ve learned it’s important to find something to do that you’ll wake up every morning excited about – for me, it’s physical therapy,” Smith said.

And he’s also getting married in June to Deidrae Meyer, who is completing a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Emporia State.

“Though incredibly busy and often maximally stressed out, at the end of the day I couldn’t be happier,” he said.

He’s also still involved in music. After high school, he joined the Army Reserves and is now a staff sergeant in the 312th Army Band.

“I saw it as a way to continue with music into college, serve my country and generate a little income in the process. They’re also helping to pay for my doctorate now, which is nice, to say the least.”

Smith admits his advice to junior high and high school students is a cliche: “to follow their dreams.”

“More than just paying the bills or making a good salary, find something to do with your life that you’ll be passionate about,” he said.