Notable Teens 2023

Colleen McDermott

Colleen McDermott, a rising junior at Cardinal Gibbons High School, is passionate about teaching kids in the Triangle how to be environmental advocates.

With the help of her service initiative, children’s books, and podcast, Apex resident Colleen McDermott is passionate about teaching kids in the Triangle how to be environmental advocates.

“Two years ago, I started my own service initiative, Planet Youth, which works to empower our youth to empower our planet through service, education, and awareness,” said McDermott, a rising junior at Cardinal Gibbons High School. “I have since then published my own educational children’s book, Love Earth, as well as a coloring book version that has sold over 100 copies and been read to over 10 classrooms.”

Upon founding Planet Youth, McDermott’s first order of business was a recycled crayon initiative, in which she managed to recycle close to 10,000 crayons.

“I began contacting schools and preschools in Apex and Cary and just asking if I could place a bin in their school and have them recycle their old crayons — or have the kids bring in their old and broken crayons that they’re not using anymore,” said McDermott. “What a lot of people don’t know is that petroleum wax doesn’t biodegrade, so it kind of just fills up in the landfills. I would collect the crayons after the bins were full, and then I would send them to an organization that would then recycle them into new crayons that were then distributed to children’s hospitals.”

McDermott has always been passionate about the environment, but after competing (and winning) titles within the Miss America Organization, she suddenly had a platform.

“I won my first local title when I was 15,” said McDermott. “I was Miss Moore County’s Outstanding Teen last year, and then I went to the state competition and placed in the Top 10, winning the Community Service Award that came with a $500 scholarship. I’m Miss Johnston County’s teen right now, and in June I will be competing in the Miss North Carolina Teen competition in High Point.”

Every competitor is asked to advocate for a cause close to their heart — and for McDermott, the environment was a no-brainer. The chance to “make a difference in the youth population of North Carolina” and touch the whole state with her service initiative while also winning scholarship money drives her during every competition.

“I recently started my own podcast called GreenTeens, where I interview other teens who are involved in the environment,” said McDermott. “I’ve interviewed a few other teen title holders who I’ve found through social media who also have environmental service initiatives. I found one girl on social media who is in college and studying environmental science and has a page dedicated to environmental education, so that was really great. I think it’s interesting to see how many avenues there are in the environmental world. One girl focused on ocean conservancy — it was cool; she held this huge beach cleanup. I think it’s just cool to see the different ideas. The whole idea of it is to inspire others.”

What’s truly inspiring is McDermott’s determination to conquer her own fears of public speaking, whether it’s interviewing teens on her podcast or answering questions during a competition.

“The thing that has impressed me the most about Colleen the last few years has been her initiative to push herself out of her comfort zone and her resilience to adversity,” said Cathy McDermott, Colleen’s mother. “Most people do not realize that Colleen was a very naturally shy kid. Public speaking would cause her anxiety. But Colleen’s desire to compete in the teen competition of the Miss America Organization was so strong she pushed herself to work past her insecurities.

“That is just one thing I truly admire about Colleen. Over the past year, Colleen has continuously challenged herself by speaking in front of thousands of people to educate audiences about the importance of caring for the environment. Because Colleen is so passionate about making a change in the world, she did not let her limitations stop her but instead pushed herself to overcome her fears and make a positive change in the lives of others.”

As a teen title holder in the Miss America Organization, McDermott performs Irish dance on stage for her talent. Contributed photo

When she is not advocating for the environment, McDermott can usually be found competing in the world of Irish dance.

“She is an accomplished Irish dancer, having placed in the top five in the nation, as well as qualifying for the World Championships of Irish Dance six times,” said Cathy.

Whether she’s speaking or dazzling the crowd with her dancing, McDermott is most inspired by her parents.

“They really work so hard for me and my brothers, just through work and everything else,” said McDermott. “They’ve sacrificed so much for me, which is why I’m able to do all this stuff — they’ve definitely helped me and really supported me in everything. I remember two years ago telling them I wanted to do pageants and compete in the Miss America Organization, and my parents were just like, OK, if that’s what you want to do!”

With a couple years left until college, McDermott has no set plans but dreams of attending UNC-Chapel Hill to study physical therapy. As for her service initiative, Planet Youth, McDermott has big aspirations.

“I’m trying to form it into a 501(c)(3) right now,” said McDermott. “Eventually down the road I could use money from my book sales and fundraising to maybe fund an environmental scholarship of my own for high school students or middle school students who are doing environmental service, just to expand a little bit more.”

McDermott encourages other teenagers to work hard and focus their lives on things that they’re truly passionate about.

“I’m really passionate about the environment, dance, and the Miss America Organization — that’s why I want to pursue those things, and I really want to put effort into them because I really do care about them. But it’s important to find balance too. … It’s good to work hard in school, but also just have fun so you don’t go crazy.”

Pristine Onuoha

As the winner of the 2022 Genes in Space competition, Pristine Onuoha’s experiment will be conducted aboard the International Space Station.

Selecting notable teens every year is no easy task, particularly when you live in the Triangle — seemingly the birthplace of prestigious accomplishments. Typically we try to narrow our search to local teens within Cary, Apex, and Morrisville, but when an accomplishment is quite literally out of this world, exceptions must be made.

Meet Pristine Onuoha, a graduating senior at East Chapel Hill High School and the winner of the 2022 Genes in Space competition. Onuoha is a space biology pioneer in the truest sense of the word — her winning experiment will be conducted aboard the International Space Station in 2023.

“I learned about the Genes in Space competition last year as a part of my school’s Women in STEM club, where I’m currently the vice president,” said Onuoha. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been curious about the world around me, and that applied to biology. The premise of Genes in Space is that you write a research proposal related to some problem in space travel. I saw this new opportunity to take my STEM interests to new heights, literally.”

What Onuoha lacked in experience she made up for with sheer curiosity, deciding to focus on the issue of telomere lengthening — a chromosomal change observed in astronauts.

“In space, astronauts experience physiological changes reminiscent of aging, but their cells — their DNA — tells a different story,” said Onuoha. “So in our cells are these structures called telomeres. On Earth, they shorten as you age. But in astronauts, they seem to get longer … so this made me question, how is this affecting astronaut aging?” With guidance from her AP Biology teacher, Kimberly Manning, and her mentor, Harvard University scientist Ana Karla Cepeda Diaz, Onuoha developed an experiment exploring the possibility that telomere lengthening is caused by “certain cells in the body — stem cells — behaving differently in space.”

Fresh out of high school, Onuoha is already a space biology pioneer. Contributed photo

“I guided Pristine through the process of crafting a presentation of her project proposal to an audience of scientists and educators,” said Diaz, who was paired with Onuoha when she became one of five finalists. “I also helped her adapt her project to new requirements the project needed to comply with if it was going to be sent to the ISS. Throughout, I was impressed by her enthusiasm and knowledge about her project. She read so many papers on her own and was able to think critically about them and apply that new knowledge to her project. She is also a fantastic presenter — her presence and science communication skills are top notch.”

Onuoha’s passion and inquisitive nature paid off — after presenting to a panel of scientists, educators, and technologists in Washington, DC, her proposal was selected from a competitive field of 602 submissions from 1,175 students across the US. Following her win, Onuoha and her mentor refined her research so an experiment could be tested aboard the ISS later this year.

“We realized that on the ISS, they have to send things back to Earth to have that final length analysis, because that’s not a tool available on the ISS. Just thinking of that made us see an opportunity, because it’s not just a limitation for my experiment, it’s a limitation for all kinds of research on the ISS because they don’t have the tools. We decided to take a step back and see if we could develop a test. The goal is that it will open the door for other kinds of research to be done on the ISS. That’s always my goal for science, to create something that will be applicable to more things, that will have a real impact.”

When it comes to Onuoha’s interest in STEM, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as both of Onuoha’s parents work in health care. “I’m originally from Nigeria; I was born there,” said Onuoha. “I emigrated with my parents and my sister to the US when I was around 5, and I also have two younger brothers.

Already published in two scientific journals, Onuoha’s life goal is to “create novel ways to improve people’s health — both on Earth and in space.”

Throughout the competition, Pristine’s father, Stanley Onuoha, has been most impressed with his daughter’s drive, work ethic, and her ability to articulate complex scientific processes into simple and understandable language.

“Pristine’s stated goal is to become a biomedical scientist and to help solve some of the many medical problems facing humanity,” said Stanley. “My goal for her is to realize this dream someday and contribute to the society in her own little way.”

When she’s not paving the way for space biology, Onuoha enjoys playing the violin and giving back to the community as the co-president of a service-based club at school. Inspired by seeing other people pursue their ambitious dreams, Onuoha plans to attend college next year to pursue biomedical research, with the goal of creating novel ways to improve people’s health — both on Earth and in space.

After being published in not one, but TWO scientific journals while in high school, the sky’s really (not) the limit.

“I want to encourage other people to be ambitious,” said Onuoha. “Pursue whatever you’re interested in to the highest degree, because you never know how far it might take you.”

Ryan Razon

15-year-old Ryan Razon is the only Triangle resident to be selected as one of 100 Disney Dreamers nationwide.

It’s safe to say that 15-year-old Ryan Razon, one of 100 Disney Dreamers selected nationwide, comes from a family of high achievers.

Razon’s older sister, Reagan, is a Robertson Scholar at Duke University, and Ricardo, his older brother, attends Harvard.

“Our family values focus on truth, connection, intention, and purpose,” said Ricardo Razon III, Ryan’s father. “We believe in optimizing the resources and talents that we have been blessed with to help others.”

When it comes to talent, the Razon family seems to have it in droves — Ryan is actually the second person in his family to be selected as a Disney Dreamer out of tens of thousands of applicants across the United States.

“I’m always looking for new opportunities to explore and to learn new things,” said Razon. “Coincidentally, my sister applied to the program in 2020 and was accepted as well.”

Described by Razon as “an opportunity to hone your skills and open up new opportunities for yourself,” the Disney Dreamers Academy has inspired more than 1,500 students from across the country since 2008. Each year, the Academy selects 100 exceptional students between 13 and 19 years old for a four-day event providing immersive career workshops, networking sessions, and mentorship events.

“You get to learn from experienced professionals in whatever field you’ve chosen and do workshops to help improve yourself and learn essential skills,” said Razon. “I’m definitely looking forward to the workshops so I can learn about things that I’m currently passionate about from certified experts. I love dance and computer science and just problem solving in general.”

Ryan Razon is the second person in his family to be selected as a Disney Dreamer. Contributed photo

As the son of IT professionals, Razon began programming and writing code while in third grade — something that his parents saw as a “foreign language requirement.” When Razon isn’t on a computer, he can usually be found training around 20 hours a week with the Cary Ballet Conservatory’s Professional Training Program.

“I started dancing formally in about fourth grade, but throughout my entire life I’ve always been dancing in some form or fashion, whether it was playing Just Dance on the Wii or dancing at people’s weddings,” said Razon. “I started out with hip-hop and I slowly ventured towards jazz, and now I’m all in for ballet. I love feeling the rhythm and being able to just internalize it and create movements out of it and express myself. When it comes to which I love more, I think computer science and dance are probably equal.”

Some of Razon’s favorite memories are dancing as Fritz for the past three years in the CBC’s Nutcracker production and performing as Mowgli in The Jungle Book.

“I was maybe in fifth grade when I did that, and I was cast as the lead, Mowgli,” recalls Razon. “It was just fun songs that everyone would recognize, and fun dancing.”

With leadership positions in both the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the NAACP junior chapter, Razon is equally passionate about diversity and inclusion.

“In dance, I can probably count on one hand the amount of African American students that I have class with on a regular basis,” said Razon. “It’s important to encourage people to explore what they’re into so we can increase the amount of diversity in things such as dance or computer science, rather than boxing people in. If somebody walked past me in the hallway, maybe one out of a hundred people would think, oh yeah, he’s a dancer. You don’t have to follow anything based on someone else’s expectations — everybody should do what they want to do and be given those opportunities.”

Outside of school and dance, Razon enjoys competing with his robotics team, Cortechs Robotics.

“We had a tournament this weekend, and we came in second place with our group,” said Razon. “The FIRST Robotics program is such a difficult task. We have to build the whole robot, and from the beginning know which strategy we’re going to use and build the robot accordingly.”

Dr. Antonia (Toni) Arnold-McFarland, senior advisor of RTP NSBE Jr., describes Razon as a “natural at understanding, solving, and applying mathematics.”

“Ryan won a math award at our virtual NSBE national conference in 2021, and he became connected to Cortechs Robotics via NSBE and is making a good impression there,” said Dr. Arnold-McFarland. “Ryan excelled in our TRENDS data science camp. I have realized that Ryan will make a positive change and impression wherever he treads.”

Inspired by the love and support of his parents, Razon plans to eventually attend college and major in computer science. As for other students who are looking to branch out and expand their horizons, Razon has the perfect advice.

“Be dedicated to following your dreams,” said Razon. “Make sure you’re able to enjoy life and enjoy what you’re doing. Sometimes you’ve got to give yourself a break — you’re going to get there, you just have to persevere.”

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