The Right Chemistry

April 18, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

These things happen to other people: Jennifer Kalish, 18, was eating a peanut butter sandwich in the Bryn Mawr School's cafeteria last year. The high school junior needed a science project, but her brain was bare.

In one of those fluky acts that often jump-start ideas, Jennifer looked at the fruit juice container under her nose. She took it to the science lab, knifed it open and found aluminum lining. Jennifer wondered how aluminum in food containers is absorbed into the food we eat? Is the metal toxic? And so what if it is?

"In science," Jennifer says, "you can't get bored because the questions never end."

From months of heads-up lab work, Jennifer was able to identify new genes in yeast cells that protect against aluminum toxicity. Her work won a $10,000, eighth-place scholarship last month in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search in Washington. While there, Jennifer -- who's also a point guard and black belt -- chatted with a Nobel Prize winner and even firmly shook the president's hand.

What more could this young woman want?

"I still want to know what aluminum does in a human cell," Jennifer says.

She's a self-confessed perfectionist, a practical young woman with Big Questions on her mind. But today, the last Wednesday in March, Jennifer Melissa Kalish is thinking about clothes.

For the first time in her school years, she is wondering what to wear. After spring break at the private Bryn Mawr School, seniors get to wear street clothes after being in uniform for twelve grades.

She's also wondering what to wear at college. But more important, where to go to college? Of the nine schools she applied to, Jennifer recently was accepted at her first choice -- Harvard University. The Baltimore native might be Boston-bound.

Jennifer got serious about science in the sixth grade, when she started poking around physics books. In the eighth grade at Bryn Mawr, she worked on her first science project, which concerned the conservation of mass in a chemical reaction. But still, the 13-year-old girl had all these questions.

"Jennifer came to talk to me. At that point, I think she wanted to know what a black hole was," says science department chair Stephanie Miller, Jennifer's mentor and science teacher. "We have a lot of girls interested in science, but it's uncommon for them to follow it through."

Jennifer was a shy girl, says Mrs. Miller, but she could be touchingly expressive. "She'd walk up to me, hand me a rose, say 'Here,' and walk away."

On the campus of Bryn Mawr in Baltimore, Jennifer scurries to a yearbook committee meeting. Proofs are missing, and the yearbook adviser appears to be imploding. Jennifer is the faculty editor, in charge of making sure all the teachers get their pictures in the yearbook and hopefully with their eyes open. Jennifer isn't worried. The job will get done.

Above all, Jennifer has become a time manager. She doesn't have enough time to do everything she wants: "I could spend 10 years figuring out how to do more than I do now and do it all at once," she says.

Jennifer has baby brown eyes and a smile that starts slowly and then peaks into a wonderful thing, to be frank. She's 5 feet 6 and has long, strong fingers. Both features are good for basketball. Last year, she was the starting point guard for Bryn Mawr; this year, she was second-team. She's a right-hander who can shoot left.

Favorite things

After the yearbook meeting, it's time to get her picture taken with the basketball team, but the photo shoot is canceled for some reason. Quick, back inside to an advanced physics workshop. Six young women, looking like grown-up Winnie Coopers from "The Wonder Years," talk out the problems with the teacher. Jennifer is not a young woman who thinks out loud. She smiles at her friends' one-liners, but offers none. She doesn't banter or bubble. She does the physics questions and re-loads her backpack when the class ends.

She has about 10 minutes of free time -- time enough for the Barbara Walters treatment:

Favorite pet: Beta, a Siamese fighting fish. Put two males in the tank and they eat each other. Don't read anything into that, she says.

Favorite basketball teams: Duke. Chicago Bulls.

Favorite extracurricular activity: Hard to say because Jennifer has a big bag of interests. She was in ballet for five years. She played the piano and violin for a while. She loves astronomy and will do her senior science project at the Space Telescope Science Institute at Hopkins.

"She was not the type of child who was interested in one thing," says Jennifer's mother, Michele Kalish of Pikesville -- a former high school science teacher. "I got her a chemistry set once for Christmas, but she didn't spend a lot of time with it. She liked Barbie dolls."

Jennifer kick-boxed, once. She likes tennis but admittedly isn't very good. She was a camp counselor. Jennifer is also a peer counselor and is on the prom committee at Bryn Mawr.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.