Meet the Journal-World’s 2015 Academic All-Star team

The 2015 class of Academic All-Stars includes, front row from left, Joel Sweeney, Anna Sophia Westbrook, Katherine Webber, Chloe O'Dell and Spencer Morgan. Back row left are: Grace Mader, Grace Reilly, Jack Ziegler, Broderick Topil and Brian Chang.

Since 1997, the Lawrence Journal-World has invited principals and counselors from public and private schools in the area to nominate their most industrious soon-to-be-graduating students for the annual Academic All-Star team.

This year, 26 students received such a nod and submitted an application, which was reviewed by a panel of three judges. The 10 members are chosen based on their academics, community service and essays and are meant to highlight some of the Lawrence area’s best students. They are all honored at a special luncheon, and one is selected to receive a $500 scholarship.

Free State, Eudora and Ottawa high schools each produced a pair of All-Stars this year, while others come from De Soto, Lawrence, Baldwin and Tonganoxie high schools. Five women and five men were chosen.

Like many before it, this team features a range of aspiring careers: medical professionals, environmental policymakers, an architect, musician, diplomat and entrepreneur. Several of the nation’s top universities are ready to welcome them on campus.


Anna Sophia Westbrook, Academic All Star 2015

For the second year in a row, the $500 academic scholarship is going to the Westbrook family.

Anna Sophia Westbrook, a senior at Free State High School, stood out among the finalists with her impeccable grades and test scores; a range of extracurricular activities and community involvement; and an impressive essay, according to Robert Harrington, a KU professor and one of three judges for the competition.

She is the daughter of Amy and David Westbrook. The honor comes one year after her brother, Thomas, received the same distinction.

Westbrook is No. 1 in her class with a 4.0 GPA. She scored a perfect 2400 on her SAT. She is a National Merit Scholarship winner, an AP Scholar with Distinction and a winner of the Harvard Prize Book, among other accolades.

She plans to attend Harvard University next year to pursue her interests in environmental policy and computer science.

“There are lots of interesting applications at the intersection of computing and environmental science and policy,” she said. “I’d like to write about environmental issues, find ways to make legislation that actually makes sense.”

Of her extracurriculars, Westbrook spent multiple years participating in Science Olympiad, National Honor Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Pre-Med Club Engineering Club, forensics club and the FYI Leadership Club. She also participated in the Model United Nations, student council and the debate team.

She also competed on the school’s cross country, track and soccer teams.

Every applicant needed to write an essay on the relevance of newspapers in a society with advancing online technology. Harrington described Westbrook’s as thoughtful with “a style that was entertaining, interesting and easy to read.”

In another section of her application, Westbrook wrote romantically about mathematics, describing the discipline as “visionary.”

“It requires leaps of faith and an entirely impractical sense of beauty,” she wrote.

After completing an independent study with Kansas University professor Perry Alexander her junior year, Westbrook said she shifted from abstract algebra to computer science.

The independent study was filled with challenging material that made her throw her book across the room in frustration more than once. She called it a “blow to her pride,” but eventually she became a better student for it.

In her application, she described that class for a short essay question on what her most important life event was.

“I wouldn’t be as patient,” she said in an interview, referring to where she would be without that experience. “I wouldn’t be as willing to spend some time thinking about something I don’t really understand.”


Chloe Odell, Academic All Star 2015

There are two big things in Chloe O’Dell’s life: music and mental wellness. And she’s determined to stay involved in both.

She’s been partaking in the former since childhood, singing since fourth grade and playing guitar since she was 14. The latter’s been around longer. When she was younger, she struggled to cope with ADHD and OCD. But as she has learned how to be comfortable in her own skin, she wants to help others do the same, she said.

“I’m passionate about service in my community, and I hope I can find a job that will incorporate all my passions, like music therapy,” she said.

After finishing at Eudora High School, O’Dell plans to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville to study music therapy and to one day “help struggling kids find outlets to effectively express themselves,” she wrote in her application.

O’Dell spent much of her time in her school’s theater productions and even founded its drama club. She was president of the school choir, editor-in-chief of the yearbook and an editor for a student literary magazine.

Meanwhile, her work in the classroom earned her recognition as a Coca-Cola Scholar semifinalist, a National Merit Commended Student and a Kansas Honor Scholar, among other laurels.

School: Eudora High School

Grade-point average: 4.224

Class rank: 1

Parents: Amy Booth and Ben O’Dell

College and career plans: Attend Vanderbilt University to study music therapy. She hopes to become a mental health professional.


Brian Chang, Academic All Star 2015

Brian Chang said one reason he’s done well in school is because he’s always had a real interest in what he was learning. He’s always loved science, and he’s enthusiastic about history and politics.

The best way to combine them all, he thought, is to enter the environmental field, something he plans to do by way of the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in chemical engineering and environmental policy.

The environmental sciences have “a lot of multidisciplinary bridges between science and politics and society, so I think that’s a really good place for me,” said Chang, a Lawrence High student. “I’ve always been concerned with environmental issues and especially learning about climate change and how that’s affecting all aspects of our society.”

He said he is interested in research and development of renewable energy technology, or possibly working as a lobbyist for environmental interests.

Chang is a National Merit Finalist, Presidential Scholar Candidate, AP Scholar with Distinction and a Kansas Honor Scholar. He scored a perfect 36 on his ACT, took home a gold medal in the National Latin Exam and won a Columbia University Book Award.

A gifted pianist, he also participated in a range of musical activities, as well as the school’s Science Olympiad, Scholars Bowl and Model United Nations.

School: Lawrence High School

Grade-point average:

Class rank: 1

Parents: Yi-Hsien Hu and Andi Chang

College and career plans: Attend the University of California, Berkeley, to pursue a career in environmental sciences, either as a researcher or lobbyist.


Spencer Morgan, Academic All Star 2015

Spencer Morgan’s life ambition started out simply enough. As a kid, he got the idea of becoming a surgeon from the popular TV show “Grey’s Anatomy.”

And over the years, his interest in health care solidified — “I learned that i was interested in science and interacting with people,” he said — and a clear career path emerged.

Morgan, a student at Ottawa High School, plans to attend Kansas University next year. After that, he wants to go to KU’s School of Medicine and specialize in cardiothoracic surgery and medical administration. Then it’s off to Doctors Without Borders in a Spanish-speaking country, before returning to the U.S. to teach at a medical school.

“At this point in my life I realize it’s a little asinine to say ‘Yeah, I want to do all these things specifically,’ ” he said. “But Doctors Without Borders is the big one. I know I want to travel and do that kind of medicine in Third World countries.”

Morgan was named a Kansas Honor Scholar and Kansas State Scholar, among other honors. He participated in Scholars Bowl, Science Olympiad, forensics, Youth in Government, student council and Spanish tutoring.

He’s also done an ample amount of volunteer work involving clothing drives, an animal shelter, food pantry, public library and community garden.

School: Ottawa High School

Grade-point average: 3.98

Class rank: 7

Parents: Kari Ann and James Allen Morgan

College and career plans: Attend Kansas University, and later medical school, to pursue a career as a cardiothoracic surgeon.


Katherine Webber, Academic All Star 2015

Summer camps are where Katherine Webber learned several valuable things.

One, held at Duke University after she finished seventh grade, taught her not to be concerned about always being the best, but rather to achieve “with others what we could not create alone.” Another camp, held at Brown University, steered her in the direction of becoming a human rights attorney someday.

“I just like the plethora of things that I could do,” she said. “You aren’t pigeonholed into one area.”

Webber plans to attend either Washington University in St. Louis, Kansas State University, Brown or Rice University, where she plans to major in Spanish and international relations.

Her schoolwork earned her recognition as a National Merit Scholar Commended Student and a Kansas Governor’s Scholar. She co-founded a political science club at Ottawa High School and also participated in student council, Scholars Bowl, forensics, Spanish club and others.

“I can’t imagine life without being this involved and this passionate about what I do,” she said. “I think life without these sorts of interests and passions would be boring.”

School: Ottawa High School

Grade-point average: 4.0

Class rank: 1

Parents: Ellen Sinclair and Michael Webber

College and career plans: Attend either Washington University in St. Louis, Kansas State University, Brown or Rice University and pursue a career as a human rights attorney.


Broderick Topil, Academic All Star 2015

Broderick Topil had always wanted to travel overseas. A year ago, an opportunity for a class trip to Italy and Greece came up, his first chance to leave the U.S. But his parents weren’t about to pay for it.

That didn’t stop him. He raised the $3,800 on his own and went. He’s been on the lookout for globetrotting chances ever since, having returned from a trip to Peru within the last month.

“I’ve always been super interested in going abroad and learning Spanish, and then I’ve been taking some French,” Topil said. “I feel like it’s expanding my horizon.”

Topil plans to attend Northwestern University next year to major in international relations and economics and also receive certificates in Spanish and French. He hopes that someday he can be a diplomat for the U.S. in South America or help underdeveloped countries become stabilized and poverty-free in some capacity.

He’s a three-year member of the National Honor Society, served as editor-in-chief of his school newspaper, co-founded a politics club and has spent several years on the Kansas Student Leadership Council and his school’s student council.

Topil has received several academic honors for Spanish-speaking and took home a first-place prize at the Kansas Engineering Expo. He is also a Kansas Honor Scholar.

School: Eudora High School

Grade-point average: 4.314

Class rank: 1

Parents: Becky and Todd Topil

College and career plans: Attend Northwestern University and major in international relations and economics. He hopes to work in South America, perhaps as a U.S. diplomat.


Grace Mader, Academic All Star 2015

Grace Mader said she’s spent most of her free time in high school hanging out in the art room, painting and drawing. And as she begins a new chapter in her life, staying in front of the drawing board is what she plans to do.

Mader plans to attend Kansas State University next year to study architecture. She hopes to one day travel to underdeveloped nations to design and build affordable and environmentally sustainable homes and community buildings that “still look kind of neat.”

She said she first became interested in architecture after attending an engineering expo at Kansas University in middle school. She got hooked on traveling after visiting Central America last year.

“Last year for Spanish we went to Panama over spring break, and I fell in love with it and traveling and all that stuff,” she said.

Mader is an enthusiastic art student, organizing a trip to St. Louis, a duct tape fashion show and other activities for her art club, of which she is currently president. She is a three-year member of the National Honor Society. She also volunteered at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, the Baldwin Community Food Pantry and the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen, among other activities.

School: Baldwin High School

Grade-point average: 4.0

Class rank: 1

Parents: Sharon and Alan Mader

College and career plans: Attend Kansas State University to study architecture. She wants to to design and build affordable and environmentally sustainable homes and community buildings in underdeveloped countries.


Jack Ziegler, Academic All Star 2015

When asked what his most important life event was on his All-Star application, Jack Ziegler said it was his decision to join the Free State High School swim team, a move that taught him “innumerable life lessons” and hard work.

The diligence won Ziegler a state title in the water but also plenty of success in the classroom. He scored a perfect 36 on his ACT and plans to attend Kansas University to major in finance and mechanical engineering next year.

“I’ve always thought I wanted to go into business,” he said, adding that he also “thought it would be pretty cool to study engineering.”

Ziegler participated in in his school’s FYI Leadership Club and debate team, as well as DECA, a national club for students interested in entrepreneurship, marketing and finance. He also tutored students and volunteered for the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen.

He said he’s had “quite a few great teachers” who have helped him over the course of his high school career.

School: Free State High School

Grade-point average:

Class rank: 1

Parents: Debby and Brad Ziegler

College and career plans: Attend Kansas University to major in finance and mechanical engineering. After that, “It’s still kind of up in the air at this point,” he said.


Joel Sweeney, Academic All Star 2015

Joel Sweeney has had all kinds of forces pulling him in the direction of medicine most of his life.

His father works for the Hospital Corporation of America. His sister is studying to be a doctor. His uncle is a doctor.

As a child, he also witnessed the death of his older brother, who had a heart problem — an experience that pushed him into the medical field. He plans to attend either Oral Roberts University or Cedarville University to study pharmaceutical sciences and become a researcher.

“Medical stuff is kind of important to me,” he said in an interview. He wrote in his application: “Pharmacy will allow me to meaningfully impact and change people’s lives in a positive way while allowing me to pursue my passion for science and discovery.”

Sweeney participated in Scholars Bowl, marching and symphonic band and also theater productions as the head sound technician. He is a member of an Ambassadors and Mentors student group, National Honor Society and received Oral Roberts University’s Quest Whole Person Scholarship.

His volunteer activities, through church, school and other means, include such activities as shoveling sidewalks for the elderly, providing food and games for underprivileged kids, working a garage sale for wounded soldiers and assisting in food pantries.

School: De Soto High School

Grade-point average: 4.236

Class rank: 6

Parents: Kelly and John Sweeney

College and career plans: Attend either Oral Roberts University or Cedarville University to study pharmaceutical sciences and become a researcher.


Grace Reilly, Academic All Star 2015

As a member of a club soccer squad during high school, Grace Reilly learned not only how to become a better goalkeeper, but also that “there is no greater reward” than helping others, since her club coach agreed to train her at no charge.

Helping others is what she intends to do for the rest of her life. She plans to attend Kansas State University to major in biochemistry and Spanish, and chase after one of several career options: a researcher for curing genetic disorders and diseases, an orthopedist, surgeon or cardiologist.

“I really like helping people and like making people feel good,” said Reilly, who also has a spot on the KSU rowing team roster next year.

Reilly is a National Honor Society member and a recipient of the Henry J. Putnam Scholarship. She participated in Science Olympiad, student council, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and served as her school’s class secretary all four years of high school.

She also once led a schoolwide project to raise $600 to purchase care packages for U.S. soldiers stationed abroad.

School: Tonganoxie High School

Grade-point average: 4.0

Class rank: 1

Parents: Mary and Brian Reilly

College and career plans: Attend Kansas State University to major in biochemistry and Spanish. She wants to be either a researcher for curing genetic disorders and diseases, an orthopedist, surgeon or cardiologist.

More 2015 Academic All-Stars