Smarter than the SAT and more powerful than a PH.D., these superpowered Philanthropists, athletes, and achievers are ready to conquer the world.
Many East Bay teens have access to top-notch schools, state-of-the-art sports facilities, and a plethora of support. But even in this primed-for-success environment, some students are so amazing that they leave their parents and teachers thinking, These kids must be superhuman.
Lacy Dagen / Toni Finnane / Alexandra Fisher / Lauren Santo Domingo / Ravi Maddali / David Rios / Chris LeBoa / Kumaran Ratnam / Ashley Chan / Matthew Yeung / Torin Rittenberg / Megan Yee / Neil Gupta / Jacob Baer / Erica Quinn / Saranesh Prembabu / Vernon Wetzell / Fatima Hasanain / Bradley Benz / Piper Kruggel / Joseph Wu
Diablo reached out to our region’s high schools, asking administrators to identify young people who stand out. The only thing tougher than wrangling all the names? Narrowing down our list to just a few.
Here, meet the next generation of scientists, activists, athletes, and volunteers—all reared in the East Bay. Sure, their college applications aren’t too shabby, but what really makes these teens super are their sharp minds and generous hearts. Read on and see.
Weapon of Choice: Limbs of Steel
Origin story: Lacy Dagen fell in love with gymnastics at age five, and the Foothill High student now trains six days a week for almost five hours at a time. The hard work has paid off: Last year, at the Junior Olympic Nationals in Mississippi, Lacy placed fourth on the vault, third overall in her age group, and first on balance beam.
Sidekick: Her sister trains and competes alongside her, and pushes her to be better.
Future stunts: Lacy will head to the University of Florida, and hopes to become a personal trainer or physical therapist.
Weapon of Choice: Running Shoes
Origin story: At Toni Finnane’s first cross-country practice meet, she smoked the other runners, posting the fastest time of the day for all girls at the meet. By the end of her first season, she was seeded second in her division, seventh in the state, and 22nd in the entire country.
Not bad for the Campolindo student who quit soccer—her life’s passion—to pick up cross-country in her final year of high school. “Putting my heart into running was really difficult,” she says, “but I realized that taking risks is something you have to do in order to find yourself.”
Other amazing feats: Toni
leads Campolindo’s Project Open Hand club, which connects student volunteers to kids with special needs.
Future stunts: Next fall, she’ll join the cross-country team at the University of Notre Dame.
Weapon of Choice: Scholarships
Origin story: After Alexandra (“Alli”) Fisher’s mother passed away from cancer in 2013, Alli formed the Denise Fisher Memorial Fund in her mom’s honor. The fund has raised nearly $45,000 in scholarship money for students in the Kenya Registered Nurse Anesthetist Program. It continues the work of Alli’s mom, a nurse-anesthetist and medical missionary to Kenya who trained many women to be nurses at a time when Kenya’s health-care system was in shambles.
Last year, Alli went to Kenya to meet students who benefited from the fund and film documentary interviews about the program.
“It was so meaningful to see what my mom meant to these people,” says Alli, a student at Carondelet High, “but also to see these people who are able to provide medical care, which is so desperately needed.”
Other amazing feats: Alli participated in the Technovation Challenge, an all-girls app-building program, and started a Girls Who Code club at her school.
Future stunts: She received early acceptance to Duke University, and is considering studying computer science and attending law school.
Superpower: female empowerment
Weapon of choice: Public Speaking
Origin story: Lauren Santo Domingo has spent much of her high school career helping young women resist the pressure to look like the people they see on TV and in magazines.
“The media sends a message to young women that they have to whittle themselves down,” says the Athenian School student.
Lauren organized a daylong workshop with the Athenian middle school to talk about body image and is active in the gender equity club. She is also on the associate board of About-Face, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that organizes workshops for girls, educators, and parents.
Alter ego: “The Scottish Sportswoman.” Lauren grew to love netball and ice climbing while studying in Scotland.
Future stunts: She plans to continue public speaking and may pursue a career in social justice.
Superpower: trading fair
Weapon of Choice: activism
Origin story: Ravi Maddali wants you to think about that coffee you’re going to buy at the grocery store: Where did it come from? Did the person who picked the beans work in the hot sun for pennies an hour? Or did he or she work under humane conditions on a fair-trade farm?
Ravi, a student at Quarry Lane School, worked with business leaders and local government officials to make San Ramon a fair trade–approved town. Doing so, he became the youngest founder of a Fair Trade Town in the United States. So, when the city buys a product, it does its best to ensure that product has been fair-trade certified.
Other amazing feats: Ravi helped the city of Berkeley make improvements to the minimum wage ordinance.
Future stunts: He has been accepted at Columbia University, and plans to study political science and economics. “Columbia is not a fair-trade university, so I have some work to do.”
Weapon of Choice: Community Service
Origin story: David Rios’ Latino and Native American heritage is at the root of his volunteer endeavors. His mother, a native of El Salvador, fled the country when civil war broke out; his father, a descendant of the Gabrielino Indians, grew up poor and worked his way through college.
David is starting a pen pal partnership between his school, the Orinda Academy, and a children’s orphanage in El Salvador. He has decided to put off college for a year to continue his volunteer work in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and also with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in Rohnert Park. David also volunteers at the Monument Crisis Center.
“I feel like I was born to do this type of work,” he says.
Other amazing feats: David was awarded Soroptimist International Community Service awards in 2013 and 2014.
Future stunts: Eventually, he’d like to major in political science.
—A. K. Carroll
Superpower: Planet protection
Weapon of Choice: marine research
Origin story: Last summer, Bishop O’Dowd High’s Chris LeBoa from was one of eight high school students selected to intern with the Ocean Exploration Trust. He studied deep-sea creatures in the Caribbean, helped launch a cost-efficient ocean drifter for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, developed lionfish population maps, and analyzed ocean sediments and underwater fault lines.
He juggles jobs to finance research trips, including to Costa Rica, where he helped protect leatherback tortoises, and to the island of Espiritu Santo in the Gulf of California, where he studied a parasite affecting starfish.
Other amazing feats: Chris has logged more than 600 volunteer hours at his local food bank and homeless shelter.
Future stunts: Over spring break, he’ll work with giant turtles in the Galapagos. “I’ve been interested in becoming a medical researcher and making medicines derived from nature,” he says.
Superpower: Ocular Improvements
Weapon of Choice: high-tech fiber
Origin story: Retinal implants are a beacon of hope for the visually impaired, but the batteries have limited power, requiring invasive surgeries. Enter Dublin High’s Kumaran Ratnam, who developed the concept of using a fiber that eliminates the need for a battery.
The discovery earned him the Grand Prize at the Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair, as well as a spot at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Now, he is working with a team at Harvard to improve the design, apply for a patent, and make his concept a reality.
Other amazing feats: Kumaran was featured as one of Popular Mechanics’ Nine Future Breakthrough Award Winners.
Future stunts: He has been offered a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University and has his eye on Harvard Medical School.
Superpower: Connecting Kids
Weapon of choice: Ice skates
Origin story: Ashley Chan, a student at Valley Christian High, wanted to combine her two main passions: skating and working with autistic children. So she created a special-needs skating program at Dublin Iceland.
“Working with the kids shows you that some of the struggles you have are nothing compared with what they go through,” says Ashley, a competitive skater.
Other amazing feats: Ashley was one of 150 students accepted to UC Irvine’s summer school for math and science, where she worked in genome sequencing.
Future stunts: Ashley plans to attend medical school and become a pediatrician.
Superpower: Queer Advocacy
Weapon of choice: strong role modeling
Origin story: Matthew Yeung is a champion for queer and transgender youth, working to make society more inclusive.
“A lot of my work has been inspired by the stuff I’ve been through,” says Matthew, who knows firsthand the challenges of growing up and coming out. “I really wanted to be able to help other queer and trans youth; I want to [model] strength.”
Matthew’s advocacy started during his freshman year at California High, when he rebooted the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, a club that educates the school community about homophobia and transphobia and meets to talk about sexual orientation. He has since taken on roles with the national arms of the Gay-Straight Alliance and The Trevor Project, the leading nonprofit to prevent suicide among LGBT youth.
Matthew is also the student media ambassador for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, and has been featured on Good Morning America and in the New York Times. And he doesn’t plan to stop there.
“I really want to start working on building community-based spaces, and working with healing and therapy,” he says. “Working with individuals makes me feel most whole.”
Sidekick: “Can I say Beyoncé? I love her. She is my queen.”
Future stunts: Matthew graduated early in January, and hopes to attend Hampshire College. His dream job is in gender education in the Peace Corps.
Superpower: expressive Virtuosity
Weapon of Choice: Words
Origin story: Torin Rittenberg chooses his words as if they were weapons going into battle. Give him a topic, and he’ll research it and make it his own, then deliver in the tradition of great orators.
“I discovered spoken-word storytelling and poetry as this whole new type of art form,” says the Bentley High student.
Last summer, Torin was chosen as a finalist for Oakland Youth Poet Laureate after submitting a series of performances to the Youth Speaks organization. This year, he has been performing with Youth Poet Laureates at venues around the Bay Area, offering powerful original works about challenging topics, such as racial discrimination and social justice.
Alter ego: “The Soccer Star.” Torin plays varsity soccer and is cocaptain of the team this year.
Future stunts: Torin is waiting to hear from Brown University, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and others.
Superpower: Truth saying
Weapon of choice: The First Amendment
Origin story: Megan Yee learned the power of the pen at Acalanes High’s student newspaper, the Acalanes Blueprint.
Reporting stories seemed scary at first, but soon Megan was reporting on teacher salaries and union negotiations, a sex education controversy, and the drama between the Acalanes and Campolindo boys’ waterpolo teams. She has earned awards from the National Federation of Press Women and the Dean S. Lesher Scholastic Awards program.
“Journalism has shown me the difference I can make in a community,” Megan says.
Alter ego: ”The Food Blog Fan Girl.” Megan skipped homecoming to meet Joy the Baker.
Future stunts: She will be testing her skills at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.
Superpower: Harnessing Brain Power
Weapon of Choice: Computer networks
Origin story: When Neil Gupta moved back to Danville—after two years in India—as a sophomore in high school, he realized that social media could be harnessed to help students. So the Monte Vista High student created TeenMesh, a virtual version of a peer-to-peer program used at his Indian embassy school that lets high school students around the world help one another with homework—for free.
Now, Neil oversees a staff of top students who can help TeenMesh users with questions on a range of topics. It’s a remarkable resource, with more than 5,000 students signed up, but Neil makes sure students don’t use the network to shortcut their way through their homework.
“We help students work through problems by taking them through it step by step when they are stuck,” says Neil. “We don’t just give them the answers.”
Other amazing feats: Neil recently gave a TED talk in front of 400 students about how they can change the world through technology.
Future stunts: He hopes to attend a top-tier school for computer science or finance.
Weapon of choice: Canon Rebel T3i
Origin story: Jacob Baer started making short films at age 10. One of his early teachers was his father, who is deaf and teaches videography at California School for the Deaf in Fremont.
Last year, Jacob submitted a 10-minute documentary, CODA [Child of Deaf Adults] Pride, to the All-American High School Film Festival, and it was selected to be shown in New York. Since its release, the film—which features interviews with children of deaf adults and scenes of Jacob with his family—has gotten more than 35,000 views on YouTube.
“There’s this stereotype: deaf and dumb,” says Jacob, a student at Amador Valley High. “I was hoping that [this film] would make people think differently and realize that just because you can’t hear doesn’t mean you’re silent.”
Another one of Jacob’s films received an honorable mention in the 2014 White House Student Film Festival, and he’s submitted another film for 2015, hoping to land one of the official spots.
Sidekick: His buddy, Daniel Gurevich, helps him with audio and special effects.
Future stunts: After he graduates, Jacob hopes to attend film school in Los Angeles or New York.
Superpower: Photosynthetic energy improvement
Weapon of Choice: Green thumb
Origin story: Plants have ways to protect themselves from the sun, but sometimes this sunscreen makes them less efficient. So last summer, Erica Quinn interned at UC Berkeley’s Niyogi Lab to study how photosynthetic energy conversion might be used to improve crop output.
Working with a mentor, the senior at the College Preparatory School scanned plants for fluorescent output, copied strands of DNA, and worked with E. coli bacteria. She later presented the research at her school.
Other amazing feats: Erica is advanced in kung fu.
Future stunts: She was accepted early into Harvey Mudd College in Southern California and wants to become a biomedical engineer.
Superpower: academic prowess
Weapon of Choice: Nobel knowledge
Origin story: In December, Saranesh Prembabu was one of 20 high school students from around the world to attend Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden. The trip was eye opening for the Dougherty Valley High student.
“It was very exciting,” says Saranesh, a member of the National Society of High School Scholars. “I was able to attend Nobel lectures and hear from Nobel laureates about their work in detail. I learned a lot about how these people are applying scientific talents to improve society.”
Alter ego: “The Linguist.” He’s been teaching himself Russian.
Future stunts: He hopes to go to MIT, Stanford University, or Caltech, possibly to study physics.
Superpower: Water desalination
Weapon of Choice: A Deionization Capacitor
Origin story: Vernon Wetzell spent his early years on the island of Samoa, playing in the ocean. His love for all things marine inspired a research project on water desalination in his honors biology class at De La Salle High. The project focused on capacitive deionization, a process that uses electricity to pull ions out of water.
Vernon and his project partner, Emily Bettencourt of Northgate High, won accolades at a regional science fair, and were published in the journal Wastewater Professional. They also received the Stockholm Junior Water Prize for California, earning them a trip to the nationals in Portland and a keynote speaker spot at the California Water Environment Association conference.
Vernon wants to do more research on water desalination, if he gets funding. “It would reduce energy costs drastically and could ensure that everyone on Earth has clean and fresh water,” he says.
Sidekick: While Vernon worked on the statistics and mathematical portion, Emily took care of the engineering. “There’s no way I could have done it on my own.”
Future stunts: He is applying to astrophysics programs for college.
—A. K. Carroll
Weapon of Choice: A Silver Tongue
Origin story: Fatima Hasanain started public speaking at the urging of her mom and dad.
“My parents wanted me to do it because I’m talkative and like politics,” says Fatima. “They thought it was a good fit for me.”
It was. Last year, Fatima was a semifinalist in extemporaneous commentary at the National Speech and Debate Association’s National Tournament. There, she spoke about issues as varied as drought, same-sex marriage, and Obama’s economic plan. Fatima has also taken her talents to the Mock Trial team at Miramonte High, and two years ago, she was named best pretrial attorney in the county.
Now, Fatima hopes to qualify for state and/or nationals for congressional debate.
Alter ego: "The Compassion Captain." Fatima is copresident of Miramonte’s Acts of Random Kindness Club, which her friend founded last year.
Future stunts: She plans to study politics in college and then pursue law school.
Superpower: teaching acceptance
Weapon of Choice: Freedom Push Chair
Origin story: Last September, Bradley Benz spoke in front of more than 1,000 members of San Ramon Valley High’s student body about treating others the way you’d want to be treated—a concept he’s thought about a lot.
Brad has cerebral palsy—“a part of my brain burst when I was an infant”—and he’s been in a wheelchair his whole life. But Brad’s school is a place where he is accepted for who he is, and he has gone from being shy to cracking jokes and starting conversations.
“When I first came to school, I didn’t really like it,” he says. “Now, I don’t want to leave. Senior year has been, by far, my favorite.”
Sidekick: His friend, MacKenzie Loar, is training with him for a half marathon in May. The two launched a fundraiser to get a special jogger chair for Brad and raised more than $1,000 in 24 hours.
Future stunts: He plans to go to Diablo Valley College in the fall. “My ultimate dream is to be a sports broadcaster, but I have multiple dreams, so we’ll see what happens.”
—A. K. Carroll
Superpower: Boundary busting
Weapon of Choice: Leadership
Origin story: Piper Kruggel was adopted from China five years ago and moved to Lafayette.
“When I first came here, I felt left out—like the people at school didn’t want to know me,” says Piper, a student at Las Lomas High. “Most [English Language Development, ELD] students feel like that.”
Instead of fading into the background, Piper pursued a seat on the student council and has been helping other English learners—from Iran, Mexico, Asia, and other regions—attend campus events and join clubs such as the Pineapple Program, which pairs English learners with buddies and hosts field trips.
“I want ELD kids to know that if they have troubles or difficulties, they can talk to me,” Piper says.
Alter ego: ”The Craftswoman.” Piper likes to work with her hands on jewelry and in woodshop.
Future stunts: She will attend Diablo Valley College to complete her English classes and will transfer to a four-year school after that.
Superpower: Selling Homes
Weapon of Choice: Real Estate License
Origin story: The summer after his freshman year, Northgate High student Joseph Wu started taking business classes at Diablo Valley College for fun. He realized he had found his calling when he took a course on real estate.
Three classes, one review book, one week of studying, and one test later, Joseph received his real estate license and landed a spot in the Keller Williams Walnut Creek office—at just 18. Now, he is focused on building his business portfolio, garnering an income, and helping East Bay residents find their dream homes.
“I got a head start, and I get to do something I really like to do,” he says.
Other amazing feats: During his term as sophomore class president, Joseph started Northgate’s food court fundraisers to raise money for school events such as prom.
Future stunts: He hopes to work in an upper-management position or open his own brokerage after graduation.