Ten Teens to Watch

Genetic research, managing stock portfolios, saving the environment...plus homework.



An amazing group of teens: (opposite) David Conway, Christiana Whitcomb and Matthew and Joshua Greenberg; (this page, clockwise from top) Khadija Lalani, Katie Maffei, Phillip Coletti, Jake Becker, Paul Vanderslice and Christine Suchy

photographs by william taufic

Jake Becker

Throw Jake Becker off his game? Not likely. He’s fast, tough and can handle a few dozen icy moguls at top speed. He started skiing at two and picked freestyle at twelve. Now sixteen, he competes in Vermont as part of the Stratton Mountain Freestyle Mogul Ski Team. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association ranks him, on the East Coast, ninth in the nineteen-and-under division and last year he won the Eastern Freestyle Rookie of the Year Award. Yet Jake is anything but the boastful skier of Hollywood films. Instead, he’s modest.

In fact, the challenge is getting him to share his accomplishments. When asked if an Olympic medal shines in his future, Jake responds, “Well, this is the road you would go on to be in the Olympics. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll be good enough for that.” 

 

His typical ski run is a thirty-second blitz of knee-jarring mandatory moves that Jake explains like a cookie recipe: “You do ten or fifteen moguls, and then a jump, and thirty-five moguls, and then a jump, and then ten more moguls.” Right, stir and bake.

In the last two years he’s broken his collarbone and a rib. When he practices his jumps into a pool at Lake Placid — theoretically, to take the sting out of learning — Jake says, “It’s a lot less painful than landing on your stomach in snow.” He laughs instead of winces.

To chill out, he plays varsity soccer (he received FAA All-League Honors) and varsity lacrosse at Greens Farms Academy (FAA All-League and All-Division 2 Honors, and MVP); in the summer, he picks up the stick for the Bulldog Elite Lacrosse Club at Yale.

Pondering the difference in his sports, he says, “Skiing is all on you — it’s individual; you don’t have anyone to count on. In lacrosse, you’ve got this whole team.” A plus for lacrosse, he adds, “The bruises heal in a week or two.”

Rigorous athletics doesn’t wear out this junior. He also volunteers with GFA. He helped clean up the grounds at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which serves seriously ill children, and tutors science to students in Bridgeport as part of the Horizons Program.

He earned high honors freshman and sophomore years. “I’m taking an AP [advanced placement] course in history and the rest are honors courses,” he says, apologetically. “I was going to do some more APs, but I’ll have to miss a bunch of days for skiing. I’d like to do AP chemistry, but if I missed all the labs, I’d have trouble.” After all, it’s not like you can pack up labs and head to the mountaintops.

Does this teen rest? “Yeah,” he says, laughing. “I get a pretty good night’s sleep.”

Phillip Coletti

Fairfield Warde student Phillip Coletti is young, energetic, involved and usually making new friends. As if maintaining an outstanding GPA and being cocaptain of the varsity ski team, playing on the varsity soccer team and pole vaulting for the track team didn’t keep him hopping enough, he is also sinking his teeth into a critical issue: the environment. He was influenced by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which scientifically explains the human impact on the global environment. Phillip says, “It brought me to the realization that this is a big deal, and it’s a global deal, it’s not just happening in Fairfield County.” He believes that if we don’t take these issues seriously now, in forty to fifty years, the effects could be devastating.

Phillip is ready to start a discussion on his cause: He wants people to buy fuel-efficient cars with lower emission rates, build houses that utilize the newest advances in solar power and energy efficiency, and practice energy conservation in their everyday lives. While he believes this will at least get people moving in the right direction, he acknowledges that our problems are too big to be solved by just carpooling. He wants a federal mandate that resets the emissions standards across the country and tax incentives for corporations that utilize environmentally friendly standards. “Obama must mandate every single new car on the road must get x amount of mpg. We have to take the choice out of people’s hands.” Not surprisingly, this energetic youth wants action behind the words.

This sounds ambitious for a rising senior, but Phillip has already presented at a Globalization Conference and won first prize. Likewise, he is planning on joining his school’s environmental group that is putting solar panels onto the school. His long-term goal includes environmental engineering. With his love of math, science, and problem solving, he may be the one to create alternative energy resources that not only reduce our out-of-pocket expenses but also our dependence on foreign sources.
If the facts alone don’t get us to change, then Phillip’s persistence will.

Christiana Whitcomb

Looking for Christiana Whitcomb? Head to the water. Any water: L. I. Sound, the Atlantic, a pool. Most likely, you will find her there: scuba diving, sailing, swimming, studying. Last semester the senior left Greens Farms Academy (located directly across from L. I. Sound) for a semester at the Island School, part of the Cape Eleuthera Institute Aquaculture Team in the Bahamas. She investigated alternative sustainable feed for fish farming.

“You learn how to live sustainably and how to learn from your environment,” she says.  “We made 70 percent of our own energy out of solar panels and wind power.” More, the students collected rainwater for all of their freshwater needs. “You live without a lot of extra things.” Call it the real simple life. She took celestial navigation, ecology, literature, and cultural studies, all of which support her ultimate goal. “I’ve always been interested in what it means to live sustainably, and I wanted a chance to experience that on a much more intense level,” she says.

The only follow up to the program is to share her new knowledge. “They refer to us as seeds,” she says. “They send us off to different places in the world to grow this idea in our own communities.” Since her return, she has simplified her life, started a vegetable garden, focused on buying locally, and spent a lot of time talking about the issues with her family (they’re looking into buying a hybrid car and solar panels, and they buy local produce). Also, she is searching for a college that shows a commitment to environmental issues; that’s where she’ll study sustainable development.

Because of all this time on or in the water, she’s an advanced open-water diver, a good sailor and even won a competition for a bathing suit she designed. She never expected to win, but she says sewing is a lasting hobby, provided it’s done her way: “I’ve always been interested in the idea of sustainable clothing. You don’t see a lot of it.” She mentions Alternative Apparel by name.

Christiana says she and her friends discuss eco-living frequently and see the issue moving from trendy to substantial. “There’s so much more awareness; there’s so much more we know now,” she says. “It’s really important to live locally now, and there are a lot of great resources in Fairfield and Westport.”

 

David Conway

Move over Warren Buffett — seventeen-year-old David Conway, a Wilton High School student, has created his own stimulus plan that will benefit the private banking industry and the automobile industry. Just another big idea from this young whiz. 

David was born a finance guy. As a typical five-year-old, he set up a lemonade stand; as a not-so-typical five-year-old, he banked the profits. Lightning really struck when he was fifteen. He traveled with his family to New Orleans to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While there, seeing the once colorful area brought to its knees, he says, “I realized the best way was to buy and spend.” In other words, the five-year-old kid who banked profits became the teen who decided the future of the devastated city depended on getting its economic wheels back in motion.

His personal financial future was also shaped during this trip. It was here that he came across a coin shop that would shape his financial future. He started a collection and became fascinated with how the markets affected its value. This led to an interest in trading stocks. Now, two years later, he owns a tutoring and coin appraisal business he calls David Inc.; he also manages a stock portfolio valued at approximately $20,000.

Thoroughly in macro mode, this young financier is ever fixated on big plans. After college, which he has yet to choose, he wants to get his hands on the national economy, invigorating it with healthy financial practices, either as an economist or a journalist. Part of his plan, he explains, “is to take the banks’ surplus and invest it in the automobile industry, where they can create new technologies that would create safer, more fuel-efficient vehicles.” The goal is altruistic, in that it benefits driver safety, but he also believes it would strengthen the U.S. car manufacturers’ competitive positioning in international markets.

Until then, he is preparing with classes, such as AP calculus, international business, business law and physics. A finance guy with patriotic and philanthropic streaks, David is a bright light on the country’s economic horizon. 

Paul Vanderslice

He looks easygoing, but, trust this, Paul Vanderslice is fronting. He’s out for perfection. His GPA is rocket high and he has enjoyed perfect grades his last six semesters at Fairfield College Preparatory School (a.k.a. Fairfield Prep) — AP and honors classes. His SAT scores are perfect in math and all but perfect in writing.

AP exams: perfect. He graduated summa cum laude.

What’s with the impish grin? Must be the competitor within; as if winning and being the best are just fun and games for Paul. Even his recreational pursuits are intense. He put down his books only long enough to pick up an oar and row competitively, first with Prep and then with the Saugatuck Rowing Club. His daily practices were a grueling two to three hours. He went varsity his first year. “It was definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he says.

The competitive streak gets into his politics, too. He’s a founding member of Fairfield Prep’s Young Republican Society. With the Awareness Club, he represented Mitt Romney in a Prep debate. “We were a little outnumbered,” he admits, laughing. “The head of the Republican Club was on the Prep Debate Team, so he knew how to handle it, but everyone else was pretty inexperienced. I’ve never done a debate before.”

Still don’t believe he plays to win? Check out his investment picks. He has been in the market since he turned eight, and for about ten years has managed a $50,000-plus portfolio for his family and was in the Stock Market Club at Prep. He says, “Every week we had to do a spreadsheet of all our investments.”

As for the economic crisis, he says, “I was buying stocks of things I knew before the crash, and then after I started looking at it in a big picture way, where I didn’t want to get tangled up in anything. There’s a lot of uncertainty with the new government. Now, I’m mostly in cash … a little less bold.” His picks beat the Dow Jones in 2007 and 2008. Duke believes in him — he’s a freshman this year, focusing on economics. “I view politics as a second career. I like the philosophies and ideologies of it.”

Khadija Lalani

The gentle smile of Khadija Lalani veils her strength. This Weston High School senior holds a perspective on the world that is unexpected at her age. She provides for the most vulnerable citizens: children.

She just won a youth essay contest held by the Campaign for the U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which asked: How would the U.S. ratification of the CRC help/impact education? She presented her essay (see it at childrightscampaign.org) at the campaign’s National Symposium, held at Georgetown University Law School.

The CRC (a U.N. treaty with a thirty-year history) outlines the rights for children separately from human rights. It has been ratified in 193 countries. The exceptions: Somalia and the United States. “It’s crucial for us to ratify the treaty for the children,” she says. “They need special protection, health care, education — all separate from human rights. They need to have a voice.”

Working on the essay inspired her to get more involved. Last year she founded the UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) Club at her school. The group’s first fundraiser (selling peace-sign bracelets) benefited a UNICEF partner, a nonprofit called Malaria No More (malarianomore.org). The profits provided 104 bed nets to families in Africa at risk for malaria (the disease kills a child every thirty seconds there). Last spring, the club held another fundraiser to benefit the Tap Project (tapproject.org), which provides safe drinking water to those in Africa who otherwise lack access to it.

Her fight hits home too. “It begins with inequitable access to education in the U.S. — books, computers, heating and air-conditioning.” These basics, Khadija says, are not available  to every child. “It spirals into social problems,” she says. “The ratification aims to hold government accountable.”

To cap off a busy, successful year — she is  a member of the National Honor Society — Khadija also won the 2009 Future Global Leader Award for Weston High School, an honor from the World Affairs Forum Future Global Leader Award Program. She concludes, “Children should really get involved. Try to make an impact, regardless of what you’re interested in.”

 

Katie Maffei

Katie Maffei, a senior at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, is a member of Mu Alpha Theta (a mathematics honor society) and Spanish Honor Society and manages the Boys and Girls Cross Country Team.

She’s also a philanthropist with a cause that hits close to home. For as long as Katie can remember, cancer has been a part of her family. When she was young, she watched as her grandmother fought breast cancer. After many long periods of hope and survival, the cancer spread and her grandmother lost the fight. Though reserved and gracious, Katie was not about to let it end there. At seventeen, she, along with the other women in her family, have already been tested for the breast cancer gene. “It was just one of those things that we needed to know,” she says.

She had welcome news: She does not carry the gene. Still, she knows this means the risk is lower than it might have been but not eliminated, and the experience has broadened her view: “I don’t think I know one person that has not been impacted by cancer. It could be a family member or a friend,” she says, “but no one seems to be unaffected by this.”

She joined the Youths for American Cancer Society, which focuses on getting young people involved in raising funds and awareness. Its primary goal is to help reduce the risk of cancer, promote early detection, and empower people living with the disease. She helped organize Daffodil Days (which is the national flower of the American Cancer Society) and, as part of ConKerr Cancer, sewed cheerful pillowcases for children undergoing cancer treatment. “It was great, because the kids got to pick out the fabrics they loved, and we were able to create something special for them. Hospitals can get so impersonal that being able to brighten up their beds with a fun pillow has a great impact on them every day.”

Katie used her Spanish language skills to help Relay for Life, an annual run/walk to raise money for cancer research and awareness. In her sophomore year, she helped her relay team raise $4,400 through donations, raffles and throwing a Taco Fiesta Benefit Party. “It’s always a team effort,” she says. “There’s no way I could do it alone.” No wonder so many people want to be a part of her team.

Christine Suchy

When most of us consider our high school years, we focus on a similar interests: our friends, our grades, and getting to our graduation day. Christine Suchy, a junior at Wilton High School, however, has raised her head for a wider view of not only her education experience but that of her entire school. She has peeled back the layers of education, working to improve the school curriculum, to evaluate teacher performance and to give students a voice at the state level.

Getting to this level of involvement took time. Christine’s interest in the field started in middle school, where she worked on the standards at the school she attended as well as schools across the state. In eighth grade she participated in the long-range planning committee, where she helped parents, teachers, and administrators set goals for the upcoming year. She enjoyed the experience so much that she continued to serve on the committee in high school. Eventually, in high school, she became a voice for her community, representing the student perspective with the State Board of Education. She was influential in creating a student-teacher evaluation form that was presented and approved by the Board. She admits that in developing the idea, the students were a little unsure of how they would be received. “We were lucky though. We decided to ask our favorite teachers to give us feedback on the form, and they really helped us shape what we presented to the board,” she says.

“I have the opportunity to work with other students from urban, suburban and rural areas,” she says, adding that working on this statewide project has broadened her outlook and helped her realize educational differences in the state. “I’m able to hear about different issues, problems, concerns, and then hear some of the good things they have done. It’s important to know what’s happening in our larger community.”

She has also served on Wilton’s Task Force to Combat Underage Drinking since she was in seventh grade. The goal is help teens understand the real effects of alcohol. One way the group has done this is using  a drunk driving simulator. It gives teens the experience of what it would be like to have no control behind the wheel of a car. “This really got people’s attention,” she says. “It mimics your body after drinking, giving you bad reflexes, slow movement and poor judgment. It’s an eye-opening experience for most kids.”

While Christine stays involved in improving the overall experiences of her peers, she also knows how to keep things light. She’s a member of the school’s student government and is president of the Prom Committee. 

Matthew and Joshua Greenberg

With their impressive academic records, Staples students Matthew and Joshua Greenberg should be used to time spent in the spotlight. But they prefer working behind the scenes as medical researchers. Still, they do it in a big way.

“My lab discovered a hormone called leptin,” says Matthew of his internship at the Rockefeller University Outreach Program in the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics with Jeffrey Friedman, M.D., Ph.D., winner of the 2009 Shaw Prize. “Basically, it’s what keeps skinny people skinny and fat people fat.”

Most recently Matthew researched brain neurons. “It’s interesting,” he says, dramatically understating things. “It’s totally different.”

Joshua, younger by eighteen months, spent the summer interning at Mount Sinai Medical School, working with Margaret Baron, M.D., Ph.D., on oncology and stem cell research.

“I’m creating new genes,” he says lightly, as if he were talking about blue jeans and not the building blocks of the human body. “I monitor and track some of the development of these stem cells.”

The Greenbergs have long excelled in academics. Matthew blazed a trail by winning the Bausch and Lomb Science Award. He also placed first in the Southern Connecticut Invitational Science and Engineering Fair (which left Governor Rell with no other option than to name May 13, 2009, Staples High School Day, in honor of his achievement); was selected to be a state delegate to the forty-seventh National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in Colorado Springs; is captain of the third-place team in the Connecticut State Association of Mathematics League; earned a place on the 2009 National Scholastic Press Association Honor Roll; and has won numerous literary awards; is a National Spanish Award winner and is a member of the National Honors Society for Music and the National Honors Society for the Gifted and Talented.

Joshua, a star in his own right, was selected in his freshman year as one of the two best biology students at the honors level (out of approximately 500). “It’s probably my favorite science,” he says, explaining that he is fascinated by the “hundreds of thousands of things happening simultaneously.” He explains, “It’s really interesting to think about how the tiny details happen — and if they didn’t happen, you couldn’t survive.”

Joshua also excels in the FIRST Tech Robotics Challenge. Awards at competitions in Massachusetts and New York opened the door for his team to participate in the international competition in Atlanta. “We came in second in the world,” he says.

He is also a member of the Staples High School math team, which made it to the New England finals for the first time in five years; was named to the 2009 National Scholastic Press Association Honor Roll; won the National Spanish Award freshman and sophomore years; and plays French horn (first chair), as does Matthew, for the band.

The brothers loosen up with tennis. Matthew plays championship matches with the varsity team and is a ranked player with the U.S. Tennis Association. “I like the strategy of it,” he says. “It’s kind of tough to balance tennis and school in the spring, especially this year, with AP exams and finals, but I liked it.”

Joshua plays junior varsity tennis for Staples and, with Matthew, provides lessons and collects used tennis rackets and clothing for teens in nearby inner cities.

The brothers also volunteer with Circle of Friends, which paired the brothers with a boy with autism.

All of that only skims their full list of accomplishments. They could feel exceptional, yet they continually build connections with others. Joshua wants to be a doctor, and Matthew says, “My life is concerned with research and helping people.”

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