Friday, December 28, 2012

CULTIVATING GENIUS: Wunderkinds at UTA have their own unique challenges

Ewin Tang’s classmates tend to overlook the slight, bespectacled youth sitting in the front row until he answers the professor’s queries—all correctly. Then they ask their own questions. “Who is this guy?” “Why is he here?” And always, “How old is he?”
At 12, Ewin, the son of bioengineering Professor Liping Tang, is the youngest student on campus and among the youngest in UT Arlington history. Since taking his first college courses at age 10, he has completed 20 hours, including classes in calculus and differential equations, all with a 4.0 GPA.
“Other students just seem kind of amazed,” he says. “They ask about my age, what I’m majoring in. Some of them actually take pictures of me. They’re pretty cool with it, though; they really don’t bother me a lot.” Although the age gap usually prevents Ewin from forming close friendships with his classmates, many are eager to work with him once they recognize his abilities.
Ewin’s college career began after he completed every math course available in his K-12 private school. His intellect had already prompted school officials to move him from third to seventh grade, but it was soon apparent that he needed more. After he scored 1920 on the SAT at age 10, his parents and school officials explored college enrollment.
Dr. Tang acknowledges that having an immensely bright child can be challenging. “There are no books, no guidance on exactly what to do. This (college for someone so young) is a totally gray area.”
The Tangs met with then-Provost Donald Bobbitt and later with Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies Michael Moore. Ewin’s first classes, an online course in history and an on-campus calculus class, were tests he passed easily.
“I think it makes a difference that I’m here,” Dr. Tang says. “Ewin has a place to go and a built-in support system.”
In addition to his University coursework, Ewin works part time in his dad’s nanotechnology laboratory. He is developing a probe to detect bacterial infection, something that would greatly assist in diagnosing diseases. His career plans involve science or engineering, but he hasn’t yet settled on a specialty.
“Our main concern when we began this was his social life,” says Dr. Tang, who notes that Ewin attends a private high school with students his own age for some courses and activities. “Academically he is fine, but we want him to stay in school and stay with kids his own age, to have friends his own age. So far it’s working out pretty well. Thanks to Dr. Moore, he’s having a very good experience.”
“Other students just seem kind of amazed. They ask about my age, what I’m majoring in. Some of them actually take pictures of me.”
Ewin spends part of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the private school, where he takes classes and participates in soccer, basketball, cross country, and the Science Olympiad. He also attends UT Arlington on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and does research in his father’s lab Tuesday and Thursday. As if that’s not enough, he works with a private tutor, studies Chinese, and plays the piano and erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument akin to a violin.
While it might seem that Ewin’s case is unique, Moore and his predecessors in the Provost’s Office have seen others. Because such students don’t meet traditional enrollment requirements, they are evaluated case by case.
“Typically, there is a detailed conversation with the parents about the challenges and rigors of college work as well as a thorough review of the student’s academic history,” Moore explains. “Obviously, we are looking for exceptional young men and women who show the ability to excel in the classroom as well as handle the collegiate environment.”
Over the past two decades, several of these exceptionally young and brilliant students have used UT Arlington as a springboard to success.
Andi Baritchi (photo below lower left) began his UT Arlington career at age 15. A math and science genius like Ewin, he completed everything his high school had to offer by ninth grade. College was the obvious next step, and soon Andi and his parents were meeting with then-Provost (and current president of Prairie View A&M University) George Wright.
“He’s in large part responsible for where I am today,” Baritchi says of Dr. Wright. “He was willing to take a chance on me.”

After graduating three years later with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and engineering, Baritchi initially struggled to find his place.
“I fell into security because I’m naturally very curious,” he says. “I have to push all the buttons and understand how things work.”
His curiosity and desire to break things didn’t mesh with the corporate world. He worked as a software engineer and a security engineer, but quickly became bored.
In 2007 he joined IBM as a senior security consultant, helping major corporations around the world keep hackers at bay. He thrived in consulting and soon was promoted to manage IBM’s payment security consultancy. Today, Baritchi is a principal at Verizon Enterprise Solutions, where he manages and delivers security consulting engagements globally.
As the digital world continues its almost instantaneous 24–7 evolution, those who protect information must be at the cutting edge. Baritchi prides himself on staying abreast of the latest threats and vulnerabilities to protect his clients. He says the only way to maintain your security is to periodically engage in penetration testing, the practice of simulating an attack. It may be fun, but it’s not the end-game.
“Clients hire us not just for our hacking skills but for our broad security expertise. They want a partner who will show them where they’ve gone wrong and help them bolster their defenses.”
Baritchi says information systems are vulnerable primarily for two reasons. First, they are overly complex. Second, programmers often have a “so long as it works” attitude. Features and deadlines are the top priority while security is treated as an afterthought rather than being properly ingrained at the design stage.
Then there’s the human element. People are just too trusting.
“Don’t give out your passwords or sensitive information to someone who reaches out to you,” he warns. “You never know who’s on the other end.” This doesn’t mean you should be afraid to shop online or use a credit card. “Just be careful. Only do business with reputable vendors.”
When he’s not protecting clients from security breaches, Baritchi spends his time traveling, road racing, and helping homeless dogs.
Courtney Pace Lyons (photo right above), who also came to the University at age 15, deals with a different kind of security. She’s an ordained minister, pursuing a doctoral degree at Baylor University.
Early college entrance is a tradition in the Pace family. Courtney’s mother, Janyce Johnson Pace, started classes here at age 16, and her dad was in college at age 17. Courtney graduated from UT Arlington in 2004 at age 19 with a computer science and engineering degree.
“I liked the math side of computer science and engineering, but not the programming. Through my involvement with the Baptist Student Ministry at UTA, I came to understand the calling to ministry I first felt as a teenager. Now I realize I am called to teach, to help students learn to think critically and ask questions. I want to equip ministers to understand and interact with the world in new ways.”
Since her UT Arlington days, Lyons has served as a youth pastor and hospice chaplain, married and had a son, and worked with her husband to start a church in Bellmead, a small community near Waco. Her doctoral studies focus on 20th-century African-American religious history, especially the civil rights movement, and the history of women in the church.
“I feel called to preach,” she says. “I enjoy preaching, and that’s what drew me in to studying the social justice movements of the 20th century.”
This fall Lyons taught Introduction to Christian Heritage at Baylor, speaking to classrooms filled with young students who sometimes remind her of those long-ago days at UT Arlington. She remembers her undergraduate career fondly but laughs a bit at how much she still had to learn.
Learning comes easily for Jocelyn Zee, a third UT Arlington prodigy turned successful professional. After enrolling at age 13, she graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and today is a hospitalist (a physician whose practice is entirely within the hospital) at John Peter Smith in Fort Worth. Only 17 when she entered medical school, Zee’s training began with a warning about her age.
“I was told by one of the deans about another student who started young and didn’t make it through. He had some concerns about me starting out as well, but it hasn’t been a problem. I have been called Doogie Howser a few times, but other than that, no major age-related setbacks.”
Of course, medical school has its challenges. Dr. Zee remembers well the osteopathic manipulative medicine course she took her first year, where students learn to diagnose and treat musculoskeletal complaints with physical manipulation.
“We had to practice on each other,” she says. “Let’s just say that even in a class of 135, we all got to know each other very well—and the various soft tissue treatments (massages or adjustments) each week were an added bonus.”
She’s no stranger to the intensive care unit or the emergency room.
“In the ICU, I work with residents and medical students responding to calls for critically ill patients. We also work with patients who present to the ER or are already on another floor but are deteriorating or coding—what most folks will recognize from TV shows as seeing patients on the monitor who flatline while medical staff shout ‘code blue’ or ‘clear.’ ”
Zee gives much credit for her success to her older sister, Jacqueline Howard, who also entered UT Arlington early and graduated at age 18. Howard’s major, criminal justice, took her into law enforcement after a master’s degree in law and ethics from the University of Baltimore and a Ph.D. in public affairs from UT Dallas.
After working for the Arlington Police Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Dr. Howard is now a senior crime analyst with the Arlington County Virginia Police Department, where she focuses on crime forecasting and research and investigation of crime data.
And what about the future of UT Arlington’s latest wunderkind, Ewin Tang? “I haven’t come up with anything that is really ingenious yet,” he says.
Be patient; he’s only 12.
(Reprinted from UTA Magazine: Article written by Sherry Neaves)

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