Richmond Hill High School senior Jaden Freeze is in select company.
An aspiring biochemist with an eye toward research, Freeze is one of about 250 high school students in Georgia who last week were named National Merit semifinalists based on their 2013 PSAT scores — meaning he will compete with some 16,000 other students from around the United States for 7,600 National Merit Scholarships worth approximately $33 million.
Want more numbers?
Around 1.4 million high school juniors took the PSAT last year, Freeze among them. Of those, perhaps 50,000 students scored high enough to be considered eligible to become semifinalists, and that number is further whittled down to the above-mentioned 16,000 by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a not-for-profit group which conducts the annual scholarship program.
Here’s something else.
In Georgia, all but a handful of the 2014 semifinalists were from other areas of the state — particularly metro-Atlanta and north Georgia, with some around Augusta and Columbus. But in the Coastal Empire, Chatham County schools had seven semifinalists, Glynn Academy had one, Bulloch Academy had one and Richmond Hill High School has, well, Freeze.
And that’s it. There’s nobody else on the coast to make the cut, according to the National Merit Semifinalist list.
That means it’s a big deal, right?
"I’m certainly honored," said Freeze, a Boy Scout whose dad Jason is an Army pilot and whose mom Marjorie is a physician’s assistant.
Though the money will no doubt come in handy should Freeze be among the scholarship winners, it’s also the prestige of being one of the top students in the country.
And Freeze, who is also competing for one of Georgia’s highly coveted Foundation Fellowships, is a gifted student, according to principal Debi McNeal.
"This is a tremendous recognition and accomplishment for Jaden, who I know to be a dedicated, high-achieving student who strives to challenge himself academically," McNeal said in an email.
Dedicated might be putting it mildly.
During the summer while many kids were goofing off or working part-time jobs to make spending money, Freeze interned for the United States Department of Agriculture with his former Boy Scout leader, Dr. Gary Bauchan —director of electron and confocal microscopy the USDA’s main campus in Beltsville, Maryland.
Somehow, Freeze made a summer doing electron and confocal microscopy sound like a trip to Disney World.
"For five weeks I helped them take images, code web pages for them, worked with all sorts of scientists," said Freeze, who also has a brother, Jestin. "It was great."
No wonder Freeze is aiming for a career in biochemical research. He actually likes it.
"I think it came to me in seventh-grade biology," he said. "I found myself fascinated by the cell. It’s the basic unit of life, and it’s ubiquitous, with each of us having something on the order of several trillion of them in our bodies, and we still don’t know how the majority of the machinery works. We have the basics down but a lot is still relatively unknown. That fascinates me, that there’s this little complete life form and you can’t even see it, but it’s there."
Yet Freeze isn’t all about science. He’s a well-rounded academic.
"I’m really interested in anything," Freeze said. "I like reading literature and I also have a great enthusiasm for all the sciences and math. There’s just something satisfying about deriving an equation. It feels like you’ve solved something."
In addition to his time spent in the Boy Scouts, where he’s attained the rank of Eagle Scout, Freeze is a member of the St. Anne’s Youth Group and he also plays French horn in the Richmond Hill High School band. In fact, Freeze credits RHHS band director Dr. Dan Kiene for much of his academic success.
"I’d say the biggest contributor to any sort of mental growth or fitness for me has been my participating in the band, which I’ve been doing since it was offered in the sixth grade," said Freeze, whose family moved to Richmond Hill at the beginning of his freshman year.
In short, learning music is more than learning music.
"It exercises almost every single function of your brain simultaneously," Freeze said. "Not only are you getting better at appreciating a melody, which is important for poetry or literature, but you learn to intuitively understand how time breaks down into subdivisions and getting an intuitive understanding of how wave forms work with sounds, which is important if you’re taking physics. Being in band really helps with everything. It makes you more mentally versatile overall."
Freeze should know in February if he makes the cut as a National Merit Finalist, and about 90 percent of the semifinalists do become finalists. He’ll know if he’s also a scholarship winner in May.