Only 17 But Graduating From UMKC

Photos by Brandon Parigo, Strategic Marketing and Communications

Next stop for Zoe Lemon: MIT for her master’s and Ph.D.

Get to know our students, and you’ll know what UMKC is all about.


Zoe Lemon, ’17
Program: Bachelor of Science in Physics
School: College of Arts and Sciences
Groups and organizations: Society of Physics Students and Women in Science (Wi-Sci)
Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri


You were accepted to UMKC when you were 13, and you were a Goldwater Scholarship winner during your time at UMKC and you were accepted to prestigious universities for graduate school including Harvard and Cornell. In the fall, at 17, you’re headed to MIT to pursue your master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Tell us the story about that, and why you chose UMKC and physics.

My older brother and I were homeschooled before college. My father asked if I wanted to take the SAT, and I took it to see what would happen and ended up doing well enough to get into a university.

I looked at several local universities, due to my age, and UMKC provided the most opportunities, especially because it is a research university. I also had the opportunity to meet professors and faculty before attending, and I felt very welcomed by them.

I remember watching my brother essentially teach himself college freshman physics. I thought the concepts he was learning were very interesting and I guess it just stuck. Math has always been my strong suit but when I got to UMKC, I decided to major in something I had no experience in but that I was fascinated by—physics. I wanted to further my math skills as well though, so I also chose to do a minor in mathematics.

What are the challenges of the program?

The ways we learn math and physics are so different. In math, the courses we take usually build on each other a lot. Arithmetic prepares you for algebra, which then prepares you for trigonometry and pre-calculus, which then prepares you for calculus and so on. I might be generalizing a little bit; this has just been my experience.

But in the two-semester introductory physics course college students take, you cover an extremely broad range of concepts, and not all of them are necessarily related. Learning Newton’s laws doesn’t really help that much with understanding electric circuits.

I wouldn’t say one is harder than the other—I think it depends on the individual. I personally found it challenging to get used to the physics way of doing things. I still sometimes tend to think about things from a math perspective, so I’m still working on this!

What are the benefits of studying physics?

A physics degree offers a lot of flexibility when it comes to scientific research. I was able to apply to a range of graduate school programs from molecular biology to mechanical engineering because a physicist can find a place in a lot of scientific disciplines.

Since entering college, what have you learned about yourself?

I’m okay with asking for help and speaking up when I don’t understand something.

Who do you admire most at UMKC?

Dr. Fred Leibsle is the advisor and mentor to me and many other undergraduate physics majors at UMKC, and he is amazing at what he does. I owe him my thanks for every academic achievement I’ve had in college. He has supported and helped me through every scholarship, internship and graduate school application I’ve worked on. Not to mention, he’s a wonderful teacher and is great at helping all of us students understand the material in his classes.

What’s your greatest fear?

When I walk into an elevator and the doors start closing while I’m in between them. Also, every time I use the stairs.

What is one word that best describes you?

Short (5 feet 2 inches).

What’s your favorite social media channel?

Probably Instagram. Art is one of my biggest passions, and that platform makes it very easy to follow amazing artists and share my own very amateur work. I also follow a lot of dog pages.

What’s your favorite spot on campus?

The physics department study room. As a physics major, doing your schoolwork there is the best way to get to know your classmates, which is important not just socially but also because a strong study group is so helpful when you’re struggling with a problem set or need help with anything academically.

Socially, what’s it been like being so young attending and graduating college?

I’ve made friends and I like it. Maturity wise, people forget my age, so there have been a few awkward moments of people asking to get together at a bar. But the embarrassment passes.

I get stressed with school, but I’m not a competitive person. I don’t put pressure on myself to get perfect scores.

Graduating and all of the accolades that have come with it feel good. I’ve worked hard.


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