Three former Missoula high-school students now studying math and science at top-flight, out-of-state returned home this week to thank the teachers and mentors who helped them get where they are today.
They endorsed the National Science Foundation's "Scientists and Engineers in the Schools" program, saying it too played a part in their chosen career path.
And they offered the experience and wisdom they've gained to date to the next batch of upcoming high school graduates who are interested in science and math but uncertain about their futures.
"Not everyone realizes the opportunities that exist in the science fields, whether they are opportunities to finance higher education, opportunities for careers, or opportunities to find and pursue one's intellectual passion," said Jayce Getz, 19, a Big Sky High School graduate of 2000 who is now a freshman at Harvard University majoring in mathematics.
Getz, who was named second place winner in the 2000 Intel Science Talent Search, America's oldest and most highly regarded science competition for high school seniors, plans to become a number theorist.
He returned to Missoula to participate in Wednesday's event to raise awareness.
"Hopefully, through this program, we will reveal to people what the sciences can hold for them," Getz said.
Getz had always been relatively interested in the sciences, among other subjects.
"However, until my sophomore year in high school, I had absolutely no interest in pursuing mathematical research as a career," he said. "In fact, I didn't even know that one could get paid to examine mathematics for its own sake."
Then he signed up for the advanced problems in science class, taught by Jim Harkins at Big Sky High School, and Harkins connected Getz to award-winning mathematician Ken Ono.
"I began working on independent mathematical research with him, and it has turned into a passion that will become my career," he said. He said he doesn't know where he would be today without Ono's guidance.
Others also played key roles, too, Getz said.
"The teachers at Big Sky went to great lengths to connect me with people with whom I could pursue my interests," he said. "Without these opportunities, I can say without hesitation that I would not be where I am now."
Brittany Kirkland, 18, a math major at Washington University and another Big Sky High School graduate, also named Harkins and Ono as key people in her life. She returned to Missoula on Wednesday because she is grateful for her experiences in theoretical math and science fairs.
"I believe that they have been incredible contributors to where and who I am today," Kirkland said. "I feel that this program in turn has the power to give other students the same sort of opportunities that Mr. Harkins and Professor Ono so graciously gave me."
Kirkland's interest in math was sparked when she was very young, she said.
"My father would play games with me whenever we'd drive in the car," she said. She learned to add and multiply much earlier than her peers. "And since it was always a game, I never really lost interest," she said.
Her interest in science, although not as intense as her affection for math, stems from its reliance on mathematics, she said.
"I had amazing teachers throughout middle and high school," she said. "They always expected my best and would become very angry when I tried to slack off. They always offered up challenges for me to meet."
When she graduates, Kirkland said she hopes to become a high school math teacher.
"I feel that so many students don't attempt to follow dreams of becoming engineers, scientists … because they struggle with calculus as seniors in high school," she said. "I'd love a chance at helping in that area."
Nicholas Eriksson, 22, a Sentinel High School graduate and now a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he got help and good advice from teachers, friends and his parents when he was trying to decide what to do after high school.
"I had a few really great teachers at Sentinel," he said. "Jim Cusker especially comes to mind because of his great enthusiasm for science and talent for passing that along to his students."
He participated in Wednesday's event to help others trying to decide on a career path.
He said it seems like he has always had an interest in science and math.
"My parents certainly got me interested in reading and learning at a young age," he said. "My dad's an engineer, and I guess some of that rubbed off, too."
Eriksson will graduate in June with a degree in mathematics and this fall begins studies for his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley.