High School Captures Sixth Top Science Student Award

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Dalloul has presented his work at professional conferences, which is a task typically reserved for graduate students. Dalloul has presented his work at professional conferences, which is a task typically reserved for graduate students.

A legacy is living on at Terre Haute South Vigo High School; six students have captured the statewide 2018 STEM Team award for Science (previously Mr./Miss Science) in the last decade, and this year, recent graduate John Dalloul earned the prestigious title. Each year, the Indiana governor awards a top high school student in each of the STEM subject areas. It could be described as a trifecta of factors that led to John’s triumph: his school’s strength in science, his intelligence—and most importantly, say educators—his tenacity.    

“What you get with John is a kid who is very bright and has an incredible work ethic; that combination is pretty darn impressive,” says Indiana State University Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Shaad Ahmad. “You can spend months designing a wonderful experiment, and it can blow up in your face. There are a lot of kids who don’t have the tenacity to shrug that off, come back, fix what’s wrong and go forth. John has that tenacity, that work ethic, along with the brains.”

Dalloul conducted research in Ahmad’s academic lab for several years—the original gig was just a summer job, but Dalloul couldn’t get enough. Ahmad has seen his share of bright high school students in his lab and says most see the work as a summer job to pad their resumes for college, “but John was a bit of a different beast.”

“John was around [the lab] anytime he wasn’t in school. He’d been putting in so much time here, I eventually gave him a key to the lab, so he could come whenever he wanted,” says Ahmad. “He was interested in research for its own sake—for the knowledge that could be gained.”

Using fruit flies as a model organism, Ahmad’s lab studies the genetics behind heart development. Dalloul’s list of scientific accomplishments is extensive: he competed on his high school’s Science Olympiad and Science Bowl teams, won the research-focused Indiana Junior Science and Humanities Symposium and was one of only five students in the country to be nominated for the national award. But it was Dalloul’s collegiate-level lab work that delivered a meaningful lesson in stick-to-itiveness.

“Immediately, I realized how much I didn’t know [in the lab],” says Dalloul. “The first few months I spent reading scientific papers and journals to learn about college-level molecular biology. But it was a challenge that I enjoyed.”

Ahmad says Dalloul’s research throughout his high school years was comparable to that of a first-year graduate student. He analyzed the genetics of different types of heart cells and their role in building a healthy heart or causing heart defects. Learning about the heart is likely in his blood; his father is a cardiologist, and Dalloul remembers studying science with him from a very young age.

“I was instilled with: if you work hard, you’ll succeed. If you put in the time, you’ll get rewarded,” says Dalloul. “From an early age, my parents were non-stop encouraging me and telling me, this is how you succeed. You have to be willing to put in the work. And it’s yet to prove me wrong. When I’m working toward something, I really put my nose down and just work until I succeed and give it everything I can.”

Dalloul also credits the science program at Terre Haute South Vigo High School, which has an extraordinary track record of students capturing the STEM Team award for Science. He says the teachers are passionate, supportive and “encourage us to push ourselves.”

Terre Haute South Science Department Chair Aaron Warner says the program punches above its weight; the science department is larger and offers more classes than similar-sized schools, because “success breeds success.”

“Our teachers come in early and stay late,” says Warner. “They don’t get paid anything for [leading] the academic competition teams, but they treat it as if you get paid $10,000 for coaching Science Olympiad, so our kids have tremendous opportunities.”

Dalloul plans to attend Stanford University in the fall and study both bio-engineering and computer science and perhaps attend medical school.

“He’s very deserving of [the award]; it’s great to see a kid who has done so much get rewarded with something so great,” says Warner. “There’s no question in my mind he’s definitely the best of the best. I’m so glad he’s carrying on that baton and legacy we have at South of excellence in science.”

Ahmad says his lab hosts many intelligent high school students, but Dalloul stands out because of his “incredible work ethic.”
Warner says Dalloul’s character “is impeccable.”
Dalloul says the dedication of the Terre Haute South science teachers is the reason the school produces so many STEM Team winners for science.
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