What's a "Linear Differential Operator" Anyway?

On Tuesday, 12-Aug.-2008 Eugene So presented his Master's thesis, "Linear Differential Operators and the Distribution of Zeros of Polynomials". I didn't understand a word of it. Eugene invited me to attend since I had tutored him years ago, between third and sixth grade.

His parents, Phil and Myung moved to Hawaii from Korea when Eugene was three years old. Myung taught Eugene to add fractions before he entered kindergarten. Eugene attended government schools through third grade, when his G/T teacher recommended to his parents that they consider a more challenging environment. She recommended that they apply to the Center for Talent Youth (CTY) summer program and to private schools. Phil and Myung brought Eugene to the Han Young English Center and my boss, Mr. Han, gave Eugene to me with the instruction that I prepare him for Punahou's 4th grade entrance exam (Math and English).

Eugene already read English fluently and enjoyed science, so I dealt with the Verbal part by giving him a subscription to Science News and passing on my copies of Scientific American. Nothing enhances English fluency like reading science prose. We began our Math instruction with the language of Set Theory and Logic, then worked through basic Algebra. Punahou accepted Eugene and his younger brother Daniel and gave his parents tuition assistance. Punahou tuition would otherwise have been beyond their reach.

My next assignment was to prepare Eugene for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) which CTY uses to determine eligibility. A score of 1200 or better before age 13 qualifies. We continued with Algebra. Eugene qualified and attended CTY camp in Pasadena in the summer between 4th and 5th grades.

Eugene taught himself Trigonometry and in the summer between his sixth and seventh grades a generous instructor (PhD candidate) in the UH Math Department, Monica Vo, allowed him to sit (unregistered) through a Calculus I class at the University of Hawaii. She graded his homework and tests as though he was enrolled. He earned a B. In his seventh grade, Eugene participated in the Math Counts competition and earned the highest score in the Hawaii State-level competion. The Iolani team placed first overall, so the team which Hawaii sent to the national contest consisted of the Iolani team plus Eugene.

Eugene again sat through a class (Calculus II) in the summer between his seventh and eighth grade years. We then appealed to Punahou to configure his class schedule to allow him to attend Math classes at the University during the regular school year. This was not possible due to the rotatinig class schedule which Punahou uses, so his parents decided to homeschool him. In practice, this meant that they went to work and Eugene spent his time in UH Math classes or in Hamilton Library. That year, Eugene participated in the Math Counts competition as a homeschooler, again taking the top place and traveling to the mainland with the Iolani team. Myung graciously listed me as his coach although I had stopped instructing him two years earlier.

Based on faculty recommendations the University of Hawaii finally allowed Eugene to enroll officially, in Math classes only, and Eugene worked through more 200 to 400 level classes than the University requires for a B.S. in Math. He took the GRE (Math specialty) at age 16 and the Math Department accepted him as a graduate student a few weeks before he turned 17. Eugene went straight from intermediate school to grad school, with no high school or undergraduate degree. It took a while, but he finally got his master's degree. The University of Pennsylvania has accepted him into their graduate program, on a full scholarship.

I got a chance to say farewell today (13-Aug.-2008) when I joined Phil, Myung, Eugene, Daniel, and Dr. Marvin Ortel (a key advisor in his carreer) for lunch at Assaggio's. Phil is full-time enlisted in the Army Reserves (he's one of those people who keep Reserve units alive while the units are inactive), so the family will fly MAC to Philadelphia to help Eugene settle in. Daniel will continue at Punahou (he's a junior now). Eugene is not yet 20.

At lunch today Eugene observed that Punahou found ways to accommodate the golfer Michelle Wie's career (she and Eugene were classmates). We had to work to find ways to accommodate Eugene's talents and the path we found may not be easy for others to follow, but I wonder how much talent never finds such opportunities for development. Is it only because we have clear measures of Math ability that the path opened to Eugene? If some auto mechanic or chef were to mentor a mechanical or culinary prodigy, would child labor laws and compulsory attendance laws permit such accommodation as we found for Eugene?

In an earlier version of this post I placed CTY before Eugene's 4th grade year. I corrected the timeline and will ask Myung for confirmation. No big deal, I hope.

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