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UC Berkeley Press Release

Newest whiz kids more than just super-smart

– Each year, a handful of child prodigies enters the University of California, Berkeley, after skipping grades and wowing admissions officials with their academic prowess. In keeping with that tradition, five 16-year-old advanced learners have joined this fall's 2006 freshman class.

Gupta, Baskaran and Wang in front of the Campanile
Among the young prodigies enjoying the intellectual heights of UC Berkeley this fall are (from left) Amar Gupta, Dheeptha Baskaran and Jay Chong Wang. (Steve McConnell photos)

Two are immigrants to the United States. Three are the children of immigrants. Four want to be physicians. While some are musical, others are athletic or both. And, as is fairly typical of early college goers, they don't go around advertising their age:

"You don't want to draw attention. You want to blend in," recalled UC Berkeley student Hari Shroff, 24, who entered the University of Washington at age 13, joined UC Berkeley's graduate program in biophysics at 19, and is about to receive his Ph.D.

Typically, these students already have taken college-level courses and studied alongside older kids, said Frank Worrell, faculty director of UC Berkeley's Talent Development Program, which offers summer college courses to motivated and talented K-12 students.

But smarts alone don't guarantee success, said Worrell, an education professor and psychologist who has studied gifted children. You have to work hard and show "task commitment."

Don't think about calling them nerds, a nickname commonly ascribed to whiz kids. Overall, "studies show that these young people are intelligent and sociable," Worrell said. "They're just passionate about a subject area, and that passion drives them."

Interviews with three of UC Berkeley's youngest incoming students certainly demonstrate that passion and drive to succeed.

Jay Chong Wang

Refer to Jay Chong Wang as a genius, and he viscerally cringes at the word. "One thing I dislike is arrogance — you know, people who are cocky," he said.

Jay Chong Wang
'I was really impressed by the people and the atmosphere' at Berkeley.
-Jay Chong Wang

Not that the 16-year-old freshman doesn't merit the label of budding wunderkind. He started playing classical piano at age 5 and shortly thereafter developed a hunger for knowing how gadgets and appliances like computers and microwaves work.

This summer, he volunteered as an assistant in a hospital heart disease research lab, conducting DNA tests on mice. He even tagged along with residents during hospital rounds like a regular Doogie Howser, M.D.

But perhaps the most poignant aspect of Wang's disposition is his motivation to become a surgeon. Last year, his schoolmate, an otherwise healthy teenager with no previous medical problems, died suddenly in her sleep. No cause of death was determined. "I need to know why these things happen," said Wang, who is still recovering from the shock.

The son of a pediatrician and engineer from China, Wang graduated this spring from Foothill High School in Pleasanton and intends to major in bioengineering. Though he had offers from other universities, he decided to attend UC Berkeley after visiting on Cal Day. The clincher was the panoramic view from the Campanile.

"I was really impressed by the people and the atmosphere," he said.

Dheeptha Baskaran

Freshman Dheeptha Baskaran, 16, wants to major in bioengineering and become a surgeon. For the precocious daughter of immigrants from Madras, India, being younger than her classmates is just par for the course.

Dheeptha Baskaran
'If people know you are younger, they judge you by your age before they even meet you.'
-Dheeptha Baskaran

At 14, she entered the Texas Academy of Math and Science (TAMS) in Denton, Texas, a two-year, early admissions university program for gifted students. She was two to three years younger than her classmates, although she didn't let on.

"My (closest) friend didn't know how old I was until the last week of school. She was stunned," Baskaran said, adding that she kept her age quiet because "if people know you are younger, they judge you by your age before they even meet you."

It wasn't solely UC Berkeley's rigorous academic program that attracted her when she visited in her efforts to choose the right school: "I really liked the place and the people I met," she said. "California has more recycling, and I love how you can get all these organic foods."

Indeed, Baskaran is really very multi-faceted. She adores literature and music (she plays the violin). And in the little spare time she has, she volunteers for Amnesty International.

But science, or more specifically the quest to learn how the body and mind work, is easily her greatest passion. One source of inspiration is her 4-year-old sister, who feeds her older sibling's curiosity by asking questions about everything.

"Every child is interested in why things happen. I'm not growing out of it," said Baskaran, whose father is a computer scientist.

When she first got to TAMS, Baskaran admitted, she was a procrastinator with no time management skills. Fortunately, a close friend helped her improve her study habits, assert herself and become more well-rounded.

"I became health conscious. I met people with whom I could be completely myself. I really got interested in human rights and became less of a complete bookworm," Baskaran said. "The person I was two years ago is completely different from the person I am today."

Amar Gupta

At 12, Amar Gupta became enthralled with biology. "I was very interested in how millions of tiny cells could all work together and become an organism," said Gupta, now 16, who also is the son of immigrants from India. Both his parents are physicians.

Amar Gupta
'If I work hard now, I can have a better future.'
-Amar Gupta

Soon, he was ahead of his classmates and skipping grades. He graduated from Riverside Polytechnic High School this spring with a 4.3 GPA. At UC Berkeley, he plans to major in molecular cell biology, and then he's off to medical school to — you guessed it — become a surgeon. He played alto saxophone in his high school band and hopes to join the Cal Marching Band once he settles into campus life.

Keeping up with academic demands, however, is not effortless for Gupta. "I'm not one of those people who can listen to a lecture and understand everything," he said. "I have to reinforce the material, go through it, read the book."

But like the sweeping vista from the Campanile, complete with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, life for Gupta, Wang and Baskaran is about what glitters ahead: "It's just a matter of whether you live for now or live for the future," Gupta said. "If I work hard now, I can have a better future."