After graduating from Oakton High School with honors, Gabrielle Tate sent a detailed list of questions to her former physics teacher.
"It was a list of all these things about particles and Higgs boson and could I tell her all about it," said Dr. Deborah Roudebush, who taught AP physics to Tate in her junior and senior years. "'Could this be how things work?', she said. 'Could there be no magnetic monopole if you look here or here or here?' She thinks about this stuff in her spare time."
A perpetual student, Tate — who spoke to her fellow classmates at the 2012 Oakton High graduation about the importance of education — does not let something like summer break get in the way of her thirst for knowledge.
Tate, named a National Merit Scholar in May, landed one of Vanderbilt University's most coveted scholarships. As a Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholar, Tate will receive full tuition and a one-time stipend to be used toward a summer study abroad or research experience.
"When I found out I got it, me and my little sister screamed for like 10 minutes straight, jumping up and down," she said.
She will be pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, a major Tate never would have considered for herself just a few years ago.
"I didn't really get into science until I took physics my junior year. I just fell in love with physics," said Tate, 18, of Oak Hill. "I think that the way you can describe the physical world and things that are happening in pure mathematical terms is so beautiful and simple."
For a long time, Tate wanted to be a portrait artist. A people person, she enjoyed including them in her artwork. Then, with her success on the debate team and her penchant for writing, she thought she wanted to be lawyer. But lessons on electricity and magnetism pulled her toward a career in science instead.
Roudebush described her standout student as a "Renaissance woman," but Tate sees her talents in these areas as an extension of her passion for one thing: solving puzzles.
"Writing is putting things down on paper, but in a way that's persuasive and understandable. Physics is one giant puzzle. You have to pull in different equations and concepts in order to describe the motion of objects," she said. "The same thing happens with art. You have to look at all aspects of what you're painting and put them on the canvas in a way that's visually pleasing and makes sense."
Tate credited "awesome" teachers at Oakton High for fostering her talents and supporting her as she pursued seemingly contradictory passions, name-checking Roudebush, her English teacher Beth Blankenship and art teacher Margaret Sharkoffmadrid.
But the ultimate credit, she said, belongs to her parents who have always touted education as a priority for her and her two younger sisters.
"I feel like my parents raised me right. They emphasized education, and I really do think that's the key to getting where you want to be in life. Once you get an education, nobody can take it away from you," Tate said. "I got a do-it-yourself attitude from them because that's how they have lived their lives."
The work ethic that comes from her "do-it-yourself attitude" shows in the classroom, as Tate never let a tough lesson get the best of her, Roudebush said.
"I have seen her struggle with some of the topics, but she would come in prepared with questions to figure it out," Roudebush said. "She doesn't give up. When things are hard, she knuckles down and tries her best to work her way through things. I think success in engineering has more to do with determination than brilliance of mind, which of course she also has."
Though Tate's major will focus on electrical engineering, she plans to continue to branch out, expanding on her already vast passions. She may or may not pursue debate — a team she helped strengthen to Concorde District Champions and a second place policy team in the Washington-Arlington Catholic Forensics League as a four-year member and president her junior and senior years. She "can't imagine letting go of art" just as she does not see herself without math or science in her life.
Whatever path she takes through college, it will likely be unconventional and one she chooses for herself, just as she's always done.
"I've always just done things I wanted to do," Tate said. "My sisters and I are passionate about different things, and my parents just want us to follow whatever passion we have to the fullest. It's what I'll keep doing."