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Love of Art and Music Blends with Science for Allyson Ratz

Written by
Stephen Mease

May 4, 2022


Allyson Ratz

Allyson Ratz, 17, has always been interested in how things are put together. Whether it’s the individual strokes of one of her award-winning pencil drawings, how the lines of a classic rock song can tell a story of social change, or how the release of chemicals inside the brain can influence a person’s thoughts and decisions.

Thanks to help from VSAC’s Talent Search program and the thoughtful guidance of her counselor, Katie Gesser, with whom Ally has worked for the last two years, she’s figured out how to channel that interest into a college major and a possible career path. While her college process has presented challenges along the way, Ally hasn’t been daunted. As she prepares to graduate from BFA Fairfax this spring, she’s looking forward to the next chapter with confidence.  

Ally grew up in Fairfax with her mom and an older brother, seven years her senior, who’s been away at college and in the Army for most of her teenage years. She’s watched several family members work in the medical field, including her mom, who’s currently a certified tumor registrar working for a company dedicated to precision medicine. Before this, she was a laboratory technician in the lab at a local hospital for about 25 years. And Ally credits her dad, an engineer in the semiconductor industry, for inspiring her curiosity about how things work.

For many years, Ally—a talented artist—thought she wanted to pursue a career in art. Last summer, Ally entered one of her pieces in the Champlain Valley Fair’s art fair and won first place. But recently, she came to the important realization that her self-critical nature was preventing her from finding true joy in her work.

While she decided to move away from art as a professional choice, she’s sure she’ll come back to it, perhaps as a creative outlet; but that change of focus did rattle her a bit.

“I felt really vulnerable because what I thought I always wanted to do, I suddenly didn’t,” she recalls. “But I guess the first thing you choose isn’t always going to sing to you.”

During her junior year, something else started to spin a new melody. Through her AP Psychology class, she realized she was really interested in the biological aspects of behavior—neurons firing on and off, and the chemical reactions that take place in our brains—and how those influence the ways we think, feel and act. “What fascinates me is the bridge between matter and consciousness,” she says.

She started wondering whether this interest could serve as a guidepost for college and career planning. “I said, ‘You know, there’s got to be a major about this,’” she recalls.

With the help of her VSAC counselor, Katie Gesser, she investigated, and sure enough, biopsychology was a “thing.” It wasn’t offered as a major at many schools though, which helped her narrow down her college list.  

She ended up applying to four schools and was accepted at two of them. While she didn’t get into her top choice, she feels good about the colleges that offered her admission—both private, and out-of-state schools—and she’s still weighing her options.

Throughout the process, working with VSAC made things much easier and less intimidating, she says. Her regular meetings with Katie helped her structure her early research in the biopsychology field, helped her find appropriate schools, and were hugely helpful when it came to comparing financial aid award letters. 

“I definitely wasn’t handed all this money to go to college. When it comes to financing my education, I’m going to have to make it on my own,” Ally explains. “Katie was in a similar situation, which set my mind at ease. I felt like she genuinely understood what I’m going through. And she explained all the options to help pay for college,” she says, from scholarships (Ally applied to 13 VSAC scholarships), to work-study, to negotiating with schools after receiving financial award letters. “I would never have thought of doing that.”

Ally is really looking forward to college and the personal growth opportunities this new chapter will offer. After graduating with a small class of about 80 students, most of whom she’s grown up with, she’s eager to be in a new place, meet new people, and pursue her passions.

One of her passions outside the classroom is collecting vinyl records, a hobby that was inspired when she inherited a record collection from a family member. Her prize piece is an original pressing of “Synchronicity” by The Police, and she loves hunting through record shops and antique stores to find new treasures to add to her library. Her musical preference, she says, is “classic rock all the way. I like the way that historical events and socioeconomic problems were reflected in rock music from the 60s through the 90s,” she says. “I also love the soul and use of language. There's a reason Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize in Literature!” 

For her college application essay, Ally wrote about what happens along the biological pathways of her brain as she listens to her favorite music. “As I listen, and even more so if I sing along, certain parts of my brain are lighting up—and those areas are different than the regions that would activate if I were just talking,” she explains.

Gesser says she really enjoyed working with Allyson over the last two years, and she’s confident that Ally will go far. 

“Ally is an excellent advocate for herself, especially when it comes to choosing a college that meets all of her personal, physical, and financial needs,” she says. “She’s never missed a VSAC meeting and always comes prepared with questions. This is a result of her naturally curious mindset, which is going to make her an excellent scientist in the field of biopsychology.”

While Ally says she initially hesitated as a 10th grader to participate in VSAC’s Talent Search program—she was concerned about the time commitment—she’s so glad she made that investment. “If I hadn’t participated in Talent Search, I think it would have taken me longer to end up where I am now: having chosen a major, the kind of school I’d like to attend, and the kind of career I’d like to have. I wouldn’t have the slightest idea, and that might make me shut down. Having someone like Katie prevented me from giving up.”

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