Aspiring chemist's enthusiasm lit a fire ... on his arms

Aspiring chemist's enthusiasm lit a fire ... on his arms

PAXTON — In hindsight, Adam McMullin's chemistry experiment last summer was "really dumb," he admitted.

"I wouldn't recommend anyone do it," the 18-year-old Bayles Lake resident said, "because it was really dangerous."

The Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School student filled a glass bottle with aluminum foil and lye, then mixed in water, which sparked a chemical reaction that produced sodium aluminate and an extremely flammable hydrogen gas. He then tied balloons over the bottle's top to capture the gas, and then lit the balloons, which "blew up," McMullin said.

"I burned all the hair off of my hands down to here," McMullin said, pointing to his wrist area. "It was really dangerous, but it was awesome."

The aspiring chemist and physicist expects to tackle many more experiments in the years to come if his career goals become reality — with much more meaningful research, too. After graduating from PBL as one of nine valedictorians, each with a 4.0 GPA, McMullin will begin attending Harvard University, where he plans to major in chemistry and physics with a minor in chemical engineering.

In time, McMullin hopes to make a lasting mark on the world.

"I think it would be really awesome to work in a research lab discovering new things, like groundbreaking things that haven't been seen before," McMullin said. "In chemistry, that could just be the origin of atoms, and with physics it could be the origins of the universe and things like that — just how things work.

"And I'd really like to develop new technology that benefits people who are underprivileged — like in Africa, developing new ways to treat water, stuff like that."

'Change the world'

In junior high, McMullin was most interested in math, but he later realized that chemistry and physics were where his heart was at.

He credits teacher David Shellhamer for helping him find his passion.

"He's very knowledgeable about what he does with chemistry because that's what his degree was in. He knows what he's talking about, and he loves chemistry," McMullin said. "But just as importantly, he loves all of his students and he would do anything for any of them. He pulls people aside after school and talks them through their problems and helps them however he can."

Said Shellhamer: "I know that Adam is going to do amazing things and change the world. As much as I will miss him, I know that having him move on to bigger things is what he needs to continue to grow."

McMullin remembers getting one grade lower than an 'A' throughout his schooling.

In high school, McMullin stayed busy. He has been involved in the school's math team, scholastic bowl team, student council, National Honor Society chapter, bridge team, Blue Crew and cross-country and track teams. He has also served as a junior alderman for the city of Paxton.

He credits his parents — Kelly and Jen McMullin — for his work ethic.

"They're very proud of me," he said. "The person I am today I owe to them, in how they pushed me to be the best version of myself and how they encouraged me. They told me right from the get-go that I'm not allowed to get a B in high school, that the only chance of me going to a top college is getting straight As, and they were right."

McMullin said he also was motivated academically through a competition with one of his friends, Corbin Riecks, who now attends Penn, also an Ivy League institution.

"He was a senior when I was a sophomore, and he performed great on the ACT. He was looking at the top colleges and got accepted to Penn. And I've always been telling him since we became friends that I'm going to be better than him at anything he did," McMullin said. "I told him I'd be better at math team, which we did; that our scholastic bowl team would do better, which we did; and I said I'd do better on the ACT, which I did; and I said I'd go to a better school, which arguably I am. He'll probably argue otherwise, but ..."

Harvard rose to top

After achieving a perfect GPA and scoring a 36 overall on the ACT, McMullin had "a bunch" of college options.

Besides Harvard, he was accepted to Yale, Columbia, Penn, Southern Cal and the University of Illinois.

His top choice, however, was Stanford, which denied his application. He was also denied by Princeton, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago.

Why he was denied at some of the universities for which he applied remains a mystery.

"I'm sure at certain points it's just like, 'Well, we've got to pick one but not the other, even though (both applicants are) perfect,'" McMullin said. "It's kind of just by chance that I happened to get into Harvard and not Stanford, probably. ... A lot of people don't get accepted to everywhere they apply to at that level."

Eventually, McMullin narrowed down his list to Harvard and Yale. He then took a weeklong trip to the East Coast and visited both campuses.

"They were both great, and everyone there was awesome. There were just a few nit-picky things at Yale that kind of annoyed me, like the shower there (in the dorm) was really low-pressure water. I was like, 'I don't want to do this all the time,'" he said. "So it just came down to some really small things that shouldn't have mattered in a college decision, but they were both so perfect that it ended up mattering. But I'm happy choosing Harvard."

Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit

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