A mind for science

When Sarah Koch was a grade schooler, she counted herself among the artistic kids.

She wrote and illustrated a few books, and thought some day she might end up being an ambassador or an author-illustrator. “I was a creative writing-drawing kind of kid,” she said.

But all that changed in eighth grade, when a teacher invited her to start doing the science Olympiad with her classmates at Pembroke Hill School.

After her first project — “something about volcanoes,” as she remembers it — Sarah was hooked. She went on to do the science Olympiad every year, eventually studying more complex subjects and becoming co-captain.

As a result, she is one of the few students in the area to receive a prestigious Jefferson Scholarship to continue her studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She plans to study chemistry — protein modeling to be specific — and hopes to continue her research in the Army.

Koch (pronounced “Cook”) was named one of 33 students in the country to receive a full-ride four-year scholarship. She’ll also accept an ROTC scholarship, which commits her to eight years in the Army after she graduates, she said.

“I jokingly tell my friends I’m doing counter-bio-terrorism,” she said.

But her actual interest is more complicated than that. Koch said she is interested in the various conditions caused by misfolded proteins, and how the problems are caused. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, is one example of a disease brought about by a misfolded protein.

The Jefferson Scholarship program is known as very prestigious and very hard to get into.

Students cannot apply directly but must be nominated by their schools. The first round of students is interviewed by one of 57 regional selection committees. Finalists are then invited to Charlottesville to a series of essays, seminars, math exams and more interviews.

This year, 1,500 students were nominated. Koch, daughter of Steve and Elaine Koch of Kansas City, was one of 115 finalists from 32 states and seven foreign countries.

“I was shocked I got to the final interview,” she said. “The other kids there were unbelievably impressive.”

There is no strong science tradition in the Koch family, Sarah said. Her mother is a lawyer and her father, a former history teacher, has been a stay-at-home dad.

“I’m not sure if they ever took calculus,” she said.

Her dad agreed. “Where she got it, I have no idea,” he said.

The nomination, “just came totally out of the blue,” said Steve Koch. A school guidance counselor suggested it, but said the program is so selective there was small chance of winning.

That chance could have been made even smaller by the fact that Sarah missed her regional interview because of a mis-addressed email notification, he said. But even so, she continued on to the final interviews.

Perhaps that’s because her resume looks like this: Bausch + Lomb Science Award and Rennselaer Medal for achievements in science and math; book awards from Harvard, Smith and Wellesley; gold medal on the National Spanish Exam; high honors roll and Headmaster’s Distinctive Achievement List; George S. Hovey Tablet for attaining the highest grade point average.

She taught health and Spanish in a primary school in Paraguay as part of the Amigos de Las Americas and Plan International, and she tested the effects of drug treatments on various stages of cell differentiation while interning at OsteoGeneX.

And, oh yes, she also did cross-country, tennis and soccer.

“I don’t really feel like I was horribly sleep-deprived,” said Sarah, 18.

Mostly, it was a question of time management, she said. And Pembroke is a small enough school that teachers can provide the support for students who are juggling many interests, she said.

Sarah said she looks forward to the military part of her training as well.

“I like the idea of serving my country and helping a lot of people,” she said. The military funds a lot of scientific research, and it will give her some leadership experience as well, she said.