Harvard-bound Adam McMullin expected to do 'amazing things'

PAXTON — In hindsight, Adam McMullin’s chemistry experiment last summer was “really dumb,” he admitted.

“I wouldn’t recommend anyone do it,” the 18-year-old Bayles Lake resident said, “because it was really dangerous.”

The Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School student filled a glass bottle with aluminum foil and lye, then mixed in water, which sparked a chemical reaction that  produced sodium aluminate and an extremely flammable hydrogen gas. He then tied balloons over the bottle’s top to capture the gas, and then lit the balloons, which “blew up,” McMullin said.

“I burned all the hair off of my hands down to here,” McMullin said, pointing to his wrist area. “It was really dangerous, but it was awesome.”

The aspiring chemist and physicist expects to tackle many more experiments in the years to come if his career goals become reality — with much more meaningful research, too. After graduating from PBL High School this Friday as one of nine valedictorians, each with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, McMullin will begin attending Harvard University, where he plans to major in chemistry and physics with a minor in chemical engineering. He then plans to attend graduate school before embarking on a career in the research field.

In time, McMullin hopes to make a lasting mark on the world.

“I think it would be really awesome to work in a research lab discovering new things, like groundbreaking things that haven’t been seen before,” McMullin said. “In chemistry, that could just be the origin of atoms, and with physics it could be the origins of the universe and things like that — just how things work.

“And I’d really like to develop new technology that benefits people who are underprivileged — like in Africa, developing new ways to treat water, stuff like that.

“I just want to be at the frontier of things that are being discovered, and most likely where that will happen will be working at a research institution like Harvard or somewhere like that.

“I really love chemistry, and I think it would be awesome to discover new things, and it would be incredible to (have my research) be incorporated into the chemistry curriculum at school if I discover something that important. I just want to strive to do something really meaningful.”

Finding his passion
Back in junior high school, McMullin was most interested in math, but he later realized that chemistry and physics were where his heart was at.

“I realized that chemistry gave me a way to apply my math into real-life things, and that’s what really interests me is how you can see the results,” McMullin said.

In high school, McMullin fell in love with chemistry and physics. He credits his chemistry and physics teacher, David Shellhamer, for helping him find his passion.

“He’s my favorite teacher at the school,” McMullin said. “He’s very knowledgeable about what he does with chemistry because that’s what his degree was in. He knows what he’s talking about, and he loves chemistry.

“But just as importantly, he loves all of his students and he would do anything for any of them. He pulls people aside after school and talks them through their problems and helps them however he can. So he’s a really great friend of mine.”

Shellhamer said “it was evident very early on that Adam has an amazing gift for knowledge and a passion to learn about what interests him,” adding that “it makes me overwhelming proud to see him continue his education at such a prestigious university studying in my field.”

“I know that Adam is going to do amazing things and change the world,” Shellhamer said. “As much as I will miss him, I know that having him move on to bigger things is what he needs to continue to grow. Adam is an amazing young man and someone I hope to maintain a friendship with throughout his life.”

An academic success
McMullin remembers getting one grade lower than an ‘A’ throughout his schooling.

“In eighth-grade English I got a B,” McMullin said. “I’m sure I got some before that, but that’s the only one I remember.”

That comes as no surprise for a young man who, besides running, has few interests other than his academics.

“I really don’t have much other time,” McMullin said, “because I get home from track practice at, like, 6, then eat dinner and then do homework until it’s time for bed.”

In his four years of high school, McMullin has stayed busy. He has been involved in the school’s math team, scholastic bowl team, student council, National Honor Society chapter, bridge team, Blue Crew and cross-country and track teams. He has also served as a junior alderman for the City of Paxton.

And despite all of his activities, McMullin has continued to be successful in the classroom. He credits his parents — Kelly and Jen McMullin — for his work ethic.

“They’re very proud of me,” McMullin said. “The person I am today I owe to them, in how they pushed me to be the best version of myself and how they encouraged me. They told me right from the get-go that I’m not allowed to get a B in high school, that the only chance of me going to a top college is getting straight A’s, and they were right.

“How they pushed me in my underclassman days is the reason I have the work ethic I do today. So I’m very grateful for that, and they’re very proud of where I’m going to be, and they’re excited to see what I’m going to do in the future. My dad really thinks I’m going to contribute something on a global scale, which I don’t know, but he’s very hopeful.”

McMullin said he also was motivated academically through a friendly competition with one of his friends, Corbin Riecks, who now attends the University of Pennsylvania, which, like Harvard, is a prestigious Ivy League school.

“He was a senior when I was a sophomore, and he performed great on the ACT. He was looking at the top colleges and got accepted to Penn. And I’ve always been telling him since we became friends that I’m going to be better than him at anything he did,” McMullin said. “I told him I’d be better at math team, which we did; that our scholastic bowl team would do better, which we did; and I said I’d do better on the ACT, which I did; and I said I’d go to a better school, which arguably I am. He’ll probably argue otherwise, but ...

“Just that friendly competitiveness between me and him honestly really pushed me to do the best I can do.”

Harvard rose to the top
After achieving a perfect grade-point average and scoring a 36 overall on the ACT — including a 35 on the science and reading portions and a 36 on the math and language portions —  McMullin had “a bunch” of college options, just not all of the ones he wanted, he said.

Besides Harvard, he was accepted to Yale University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California and the University of Illinois.

His top choice, however, was Stanford University, which denied his application. He was also denied by Princeton University, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago.

Oh, and then there was Baylor University, too.

“The acceptance rate (at Baylor) is like 70 percent, but I didn’t do the highly recommended essay, so I assume that’s why I didn’t get accepted,” McMullin said.

Why McMullin was denied at some of the universities for which he applied remains a mystery. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for it.

“I’m sure at certain points it’s just like, ‘Well, we’ve got to pick one but not the other, even though (both applicants are) perfect,’” McMullin said. “It’s kind of just by chance that I happened to get into Harvard and not Stanford, probably. ... A lot of people don’t get accepted to everywhere they apply to at that level.”

Eventually, McMullin narrowed down his list to Harvard and Yale. He then took a weeklong trip to the East Coast and visited both college campuses.

“They were both great, and everyone there was awesome. There were just a few nit-picky things at Yale that kind of annoyed me, like the shower there (in the dorm) was really low-pressure water. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this all the time,’” McMullin said. “So it just came down to some really small things that shouldn’t have mattered in a college decision, but they were both so perfect that it ended up mattering. But I’m happy choosing Harvard.”

Staying busy this summer
McMullin plans to work at PBL High School this summer with another 2018 valedictorian, Kody Harrison, under the guidance of the school district’s technology coordinator, Dustin Franckey, who also coaches the high school boys’ track and cross-country teams of which McMullin was a member.

“I’m excited about that,” McMullin said. “We have to replace all the projector bulbs in the school, and we’ve got a bunch of new Promethean boards and smart boards, so we have to hang all of those up and rewire all the ethernet cords and stuff like that.”

But before he gets to work at the school, he plans to spend a week in Clarksdale, Miss. He plans to depart on May 28 for the impoverished community in the Mississippi Delta, where he will help build a home for a family in need through Habitat for Humanity.

It won’t be the first time McMullin has done community service in that city. As a junior in high school, McMullin spent his spring break on a community service trip in Clarksdale that was organized by sophomore English teacher Jason Peterson, who had been there to help build Habitat for Humanity homes many times before. McMullin then returned to Clarksdale to do the same thing again that following summer, then returned for a third time this past spring.

McMullin will be joined on the upcoming trip by his sister, Bridget, a PBL junior, and about 10 other current PBL students or recent PBL graduates.

McMullin sees each trip to Clarksdale as an eye-opening experience.

“First of all, it’s great to be able to help the family, because the community of Clarksdale is terrible. So many people live in poverty, and the kids walk around without shoes, and houses are falling apart,” McMullin said. “So it’s great to be able to change the family’s life.

“And also, just the community down there, even though they’re like such a bad neighborhood and stuff, they’re the most welcoming place that I’ve ever been in. It’s so welcoming. ...

“It’s like a vacation. Even though you’re going down there to work, it’s a great getaway.”

Later this summer — on July 28 — McMullin plans to go with a group of friends to Destin, Fla., and camp on the beach at Henderson Beach State Park.

Other than that, McMullin has no other firm plans. He said he might explore making a short film with one of his friends.

“We always make movies for our school projects in English, and they’re really fun, so we’re going to try to make a really professional one and make it look really good,” McMullin said.

‘PBL has whatever you need’
McMullin said his education at PBL has “gotten me a long way,” and he said it has prepared him for the rigor of Harvard that lies ahead.

“You can look at the things I’m doing and it shows that PBL does do things for you,” McMullin said. “I’ve taken all the hardest courses they offer here, and compared to other private schools they’re probably fairly easy courses, but it does challenge me and it can challenge anyone here if they take all that they can.

“It’s gotten me a long way in my education, and I think it can for anyone, but they have to take the initiative to be able to make school worth their time instead of just sitting through it and complaining all the time. PBL has whatever you need as long as you look for it.”

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