Par excellence

Exonians earn distinction in science, debate, music and beyond

Sarah Pruitt '95
May 1, 2023
Robotics team all lined up in black team shirts


Energy ran high among members of Exeter’s Robotics Club on February 18, when they arrived at the New Hampshire Technical Institute to face off against 27 other teams in the FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition. “There were kids all over the place testing robots, programming robots and helping each other, even across teams,” recalls Isabella Vesely ’23, captain of Exeter’s Team FTC VERTEX. “You could definitely feel the atmosphere of excitement.”

As competition day progressed from presentations to qualifying matches to the main event — the state finals — Team VERTEX emerged as one of the top-ranked teams. Vesely, a veteran of three previous seasons, believes her team came into the event more prepared than ever before. “With the exception of minor mechanical repairs, our robot was ready all day,” she says, “and we didn’t even have to update code last minute, which was a definite first for us.” 

Last year, VERTEX missed qualifying for the world championships by just one spot. This year there was no such disappointment. Outfitted with multidirectional wheels and a complex turntable design on top, VERTEX’s robot was able to score easily and efficiently by placing cones atop poles of different heights on the 12-by-12-foot game fields. In the final matchup, between alliances of three randomly matched teams, VERTEX led its alliance to victory over its top-ranked opponents, led by the Nashua-based team Blue VIII. As leader of the winning alliance, VERTEX was crowned as state champion, earning a chance to compete in the 2023 world championships in Houston in April.  


VERTEX also took home the Innovate Award, which celebrated the team’s “ingenuity, creativity and inventiveness to make their designs come to life.” The weekend continued a stellar season for the team, which had ranked first in the state and scored seven of the 10 highest scores in competition overall.

Vesely says the team has increased its efforts to train less experienced members and give them more hands-on opportunities to work with the robots. These efforts paid off during this year’s competition, when two new Exeter teams, Surface and Edge, competed at the state level for the first time. Team Surface won the third-place Control Award, which recognizes a team that “demonstrates innovative thinking to solve game challenges such as autonomous operation, improving mechanical systems with intelligent control, or using sensors to achieve better results.”

On the individual level, Deborah Ang ’24 was named one of two Dean’s List finalists to represent New Hampshire at the world championships. Ang serves as VERTEX’s mechanical lead. Riya Tyagi ’24 was a semifinalist. Inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and hosted the inaugural competition in a high school gymnasium in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1992. Exeter is now among more than 3,700 high school teams and 46,000 students participating in STEM-related competitions sponsored by FIRST each year.  

Exeter’s Mock Trial Club

Exeter’s Mock Trial Club has had a long track record of success in the New Hampshire State Mock Trial Championship, but this year’s teams outdid themselves. The Exeter teams swept the top three spots at the tournament, and all the individual awards went to Exonians. Michael Nardone ’24, Selim Kim ’24, Angela Zhang ’23 and Anderson Lynch ’23 won Outstanding Attorney, while Charles Potjer ’24, Matt Grossman ’25, David Goodall ’24 and Michael Hsieh ’23 took home honors for Outstanding Witness. In the finals of the tournament, Lynch, Hsieh, Nardone and Goodall joined forces with Tucker Gibbs ’23, Colin Jung ’24, Angelina Gong ’25 and Ethan Benenson ’26 to defeat another Exonian team by a total of just two points. They will represent New Hampshire at the National High School Mock Trial Championship in Little Rock, Arkansas, in May. 

Prestigious international math contestant

Alan Bu ’24 traveled to southeastern Europe to compete in the 14th Romanian Master of Mathematics, which kicked off in Bucharest in late February. One of the most challenging high school mathematics competitions in the world, the invitation-only event included teams from 15 countries. Over two days, competitors worked through a set of six problems; the three highest individual scores from each country made up the country’s team score. Bu won a silver medal in the event, finishing 13th in a field of 90 contestants, and the U.S. team captured a first-place trophy in the overall competition. 

Singer-songwriter honored

Polly Vaillant ’23 hit a high note this winter when she joined 137 other finalists in Miami for National YoungArts Week, an intensive program under the umbrella of the National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts. Selected in the voice/singer-songwriter category, Vaillant got the chance to learn from working artists and collaborate with talented students across 10 disciplines during a week packed with workshops and performances. She capped off the experience by performing her original song “Better Now” at the New World Center concert hall. Trained in classical vocal performance, Vaillant began writing songs while quarantined at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She completed her first album, Songs in the Key of E(xeter), as a senior project last fall. “I learned so much and met so many supportive and talented people, including a cohort of other songwriters who’ve become my very good friends,” Vaillant says. “It was an absolutely amazing experience.”

Polly Vaillant '23

Physics Club finishes second in international tournament

For the first time since 2020, a team from Exeter’s Physics Club competed in person at the U.S. Invitational Young Physicists Tournament, held in February in San Mateo, California. With the support of their fellow club members, Isabella Vesely ’23, Jack Kugler ’23, Anish Mudide ’23, Daniel Jeon ’23, Achyuta Rajaram ’24, Ishaan Vohra ’24, William Lu ’24 and Peter Morand ’25 prepared investigations of four problems, ranging from the speed of sound in air to the electrostatic pendulum. During the tournament, they tested their mettle in a series of “physics fights,” in which opposing teams fire questions at each other. The competition models the type of discussion and debate that goes on at professional science conferences. At competition’s end, the Exonians finished second out of 11 teams that attended the event. 

Debater succeeds on world stage

Though parliamentary debating is typically a team effort, Colin Jung ’24, captain of Exeter’s Daniel Webster Debate Society, competed as an individual at the highest level of world competition. In January, Jung captured the first-place individual title at a tournament at Choate Rosemary Hall, earning himself a spot at the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championship in Durban, South Africa, where he joined some 200 competitors from countries around the world in four events: persuasive speaking, interpretive reading, impromptu speaking and debating. After tackling a final-round resolution focusing  on the question of reparations for descendants of enslaved people, Jung finished fourth overall (and first among the U.S. delegation) in the debate category, reaching the level of “grand finalist.”

Writers and artists recognized

Out of more than 300,000 submissions, creative works by 10 Exonians were among some 2,000 chosen for national recognition in the 100th annual Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the nation’s longest-running program honoring the work of teen writers and artists. Andrew Yuan ’24 racked up three medals in the writing category, including a gold medal for his poem “To Paraphrase Immigration.” Among the other winners were Lionel Hearon ’25, whose painting “Layla” (below) won a gold medal in the art category. Amber Zou ’24 also captured gold for her poem “self-portrait as an ampersand,” as did Lianna Yang ’24 for her piece “Dear Color Blind Country.”  

"Layla" by Lionel Hearon '25

This story was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.