Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Childhood Passion For Planets Inspired Top Scholar

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published June 20, 2013
Margaret Panetta

Margaret Panetta

ATLANTA—As a student at the Westminster Schools, Margaret (Meg) Panetta strove to own what she learned, whether reading Virgil in Latin, playing the bass or applying formulas in physics class. And her active learning approach definitely paid off: She graduated as girls valedictorian and will attend Harvard University.

She is the daughter of Dr. Edward Panetta and Patricia Gorham and is a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta. She is also the recipient of the Archbishop John F. Donoghue scholarship of the Georgia United Credit Union.

“I just want to learn all sorts of stuff to be an educated human being. Learning is fun for me. I have a personal responsibility to own what I’m learning, and I want to exert the effort and time to work hard on everything. And if I spend the time, I feel happy with what I’ve learned,” she reflected. Plus, being passive in class “is a bad slope to slide down” and “not very much fun.”

And the spiritually minded teen carries a deep sense of gratitude. “I try to be very explicit in my mind about being grateful for things. I think it’s a healthy way to be.”

Among her accomplishments, Panetta was president of the Science Olympiad Team. She was an Advanced Placement Scholar of Distinction, a National Merit Finalist and principal bass player in the school orchestra. Memorizing easily, she was a member of the Westminster Academic Quiz Team that placed first in their state division. Outside of class she loved dancing ballet, lyrical, jazz and modern dance at the Dance Centre at Vista Grove.

Panetta was drawn to Harvard’s vast intellectual resources. And she realizes her good fortune in knowing many who are equally or more accomplished who didn’t get accepted.

“I’m very excited to have the opportunity to learn (there) and see how far I can go,” she said.

Panetta plans to major in physics with a career interest in scientific research, possibly as an astronomy professor.

“I enjoy using math and physics formulas to explore the universe,” she said. “I was obsessed with space since I was like 2. When I turned 2, my birthday party was themed like planets made out of paper mâché. My parents read me a lot of books on space, and I just got excited talking about the planets.”

She also developed her love of Latin as a little girl as she learned the names of plants and “wanted to know what the scientific names meant.” She grew further enamored in hearing the Latin words flowing from Mass. Latin “requires you to think differently. … It’s like a mind game. It really strengthens your mind and analytical skills for all the different subjects you need them for.”

Her college counselor Anthea Economy called her “by far the smartest student with whom I have ever worked in my 16 years at Westminster.” And she has a “beautiful spirit” with her grace, determination and thoughtfulness and is “one of the kindest souls I know,” who takes the time to really get to know people and ask about their lives.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Meg will do something big with her life. … Despite being so light years beyond her peers and most of her teachers too, in fact, she is humble and unassuming and just a normal teenager. She enjoys classical music and dance and books and the classics. Her depth of knowledge across the disciplines is what impresses me most. She is not just a math or science kid. Meg can do it all and always strives to learn and to help others learn as well,” the counselor said.

Looking back, Panetta encourages younger students to do “what they love because they’ll be happy and interested and involved. Only good things can come from doing things that they love.”

As she joyfully goes forth to Harvard to learn, grow and explore the universe, she finds that being Catholic shapes her global mindset. At Mass she considers her connection to diverse peoples around the world.

“It gives me a wider perspective, a bigger vision of the world. That vision particularly stems from my Catholic upbringing and inspires me to become better and try to help people,” she said.