UC Berkeley News


Voted most likely not to let age get in their way
Snapshot introductions to three of this fall's five 16-year-old freshmen

| 13 September 2006

Each year, a handful of child prodigies enter Berkeley after skipping grades and wowing admissions officials with their academic prowess. There are five such students in this fall's freshman class, three of whom are introduced here.

Amar Gupta, Dheeptha Baskaran, and Jay Chong Wang stand tall among classmates 1.125 times their age. (Steve McConnell photo)

But smarts alone don't guarantee success, says Frank Worrell, faculty director of Berkeley's Academic Talent Development Program. You have to work hard and show "task commitment."

And don't even think about calling these young scholars nerds, a nickname commonly ascribed to whiz kids. Overall, says Worrell, "these young people are intelligent and sociable. They're just passionate about a subject area, and that passion drives them."

But can we call them geniuses?

Refer to Jay Chong Wang as a genius, and he'll cringe viscerally. Not that the 16-year-old freshman isn't a budding wunderkind. He started playing classical piano at age 5, and shortly thereafter developed a hunger to learn how gadgets and appliances like computers and microwaves work. This summer, after graduating from Foothill High in Pleasanton, 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 an engineer from China, Wang intends to major in bioengineering. Though he had offers from other universities, he decided to attend Berkeley after visiting on Cal Day. "I was really impressed by the people and the atmosphere," he says.

Me at 14? I was so 2004 . . .

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.

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 says, 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."

Though she adores literature and music (she plays the violin), and volunteers for Amnesty International in her spare time, it's science - more specifically, the quest to learn how the body and mind work - that is Baskaran's greatest passion. One source of inspiration is her four-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," says Baskaran, whose father is a computer scientist.

When she first got to TAMS, Baskaran admits, 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 less of a complete bookworm," she says. "The person I was two years ago is completely different from the person I am today."

Boy in the band

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.

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 Berkeley, he plans to major in molecular and 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.

That life right now, for Gupta, Wang, and Baskaran alike, is about what glitters ahead. "It's just a matter of whether you live for now or live for the future," says Gupta. "If I work hard now, I can have a better future."