Vestavia High School student named 2018 Coca-Cola Scholar

VESTAVIA HILLS, AL (WBRC) - A Vestavia High School senior Sarah Zhao has been chosen as one of this year's Coca-Cola Scholars. It's a rigorous competition, and winners are given a $20,000 scholarship. It's a well-deserved honor and just one of her many accomplishments.

The 18-year-old serves as captain of her debate team, is a Vestavia Ambassador, a member of the math team, and serves on "we the people," which is a congressional hearing team. She also volunteers with March of Dimes and UAB hospitals.

She is also a published cancer researcher. "I initiated my own cancer research project, and through that, I identified non-coding RNA genes, that are potential causal factors for leukemia," says Zhao.

That's right. At 17, she worked to find a cure for cancer.

That research has inspired her to pursue a career in medicine. She is attending Duke University in the fall where she plans to study computer science and biology.

"I think right now I am going to test out being both a physician and a scientist. In the future, I think I am looking at being a cardio surgeon or working in neonatal medicine because I have learned through my volunteering with March of Dimes that there are so many babies that are born prematurely. Even in Alabama, the statistic is one out of 9, which is greater than the national average of one in 10, says Zhao.

While her accomplishments may be hard to believe, her teacher is not surprised.

"She does work outside the classroom that is really going to make an impact on the world," says Michael Sinnott. He is an AP English Language Teacher at Vestavia Hills High School. His impact on Sarah meant so much to her, that she, in turn, nominated him to be one of Coca-Cola Scholars "Educators of Distinction."

"There have been so many teachers who have guided me along the way and supported my multi-faceted interests," says Sarah. "I chose Mr. Sinnot because through his teachings and through the past few years I really realized how much I love writing and even submitting my own writing and personal memoirs into the scholastic writing competition."

"She's an incredible writer, she won some awards last year through the scholastic writing competition, she did extremely well on her AP exams, but also she's an accomplished scientist," says Sinnott.

Sarah says while she is thrilled at the scholarship, the award from the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation is more than that.

"It's been a really big honor to have the Coca-Cola scholarship. It's more than the scholarship, it's a whole community you get inducted into. We have a whole Coca-Cola scholars weekend where you get to meet the founders and they really care about us and they want to make sure they meet each and every one of us and throughout our lives we will always have this family to go back to which I think is the most special thing about this program."

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