3 degrees aren't enough for 16-year-old UW grad
Andrew Hsu has not yet been on a date or taken his driving test. But he does have three degrees — in neurobiology, biochemistry and...
Seattle Times higher education reporter
Andrew Hsu has not yet been on a date or taken his driving test.
But he does have three degrees — in neurobiology, biochemistry and chemistry. This month, just weeks after his 16th birthday, Hsu became the second-youngest person to graduate from the University of Washington, and the youngest with a triple degree. Starting this summer, he plans to begin his doctoral research into brain function at Stanford University's medical school.
For Andrew, the UW is where he has grown up. Not just the 1-foot height spurt that began after his freshman year, but also where he began separating his own identity and destiny from the expectations of others.
Talents show up early
He started reading at 2
According to dad David Hsu, a computer-software engineer, Andrew's unusual talents began revealing themselves at age 2, when he started assembling Lego robots and teaching himself to read.
When he was 7, his parents took him out of an advanced program at Apollo Elementary School in Issaquah and began to home-school him. That's when Andrew started to "explode academically," according to his father.
A year later he was studying high-school courses through a University of Nebraska distance-learning program. At age 11, he became a local celebrity when he was the youngest to win a grand prize at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair.
His entry involved examining a gene found in both humans and mice. The title? "Identification, Characterization and DNA Sequencing of the Homo Sapiens and Mus Musculus COL20A1 Gene (Type XX Collagen) with Bioinformatics and Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)."
Andrew's parents thought he was ready for higher education, even though he was too young to qualify for the UW's Robinson Center program, which offers early entrance for gifted teens.
UW chemistry professor Bill Reinhardt was intrigued with Andrew, who'd already been doing some research at the UW School of Medicine.
Reinhardt had done some investigating and found out Andrew was taking the bus to swim meets in Issaquah with other students — and was able to give back as much teasing as he received.
"I went out to bat for him with a real uncertainty," Reinhardt said. "What I needed to know was not only that he could do college work, but also that he was a regular kid with a sense of humor, who could fit in and get along."
Reinhardt found a makeshift way to allow Andrew to take a chemistry honors course. Andrew was 12 years old.
Growing up at UW
Fellow students "fell in love with him"
Andrew was so much shorter than everyone else, he needed to sit up front in each class. At first, his mom, Joyce Hsu, chaperoned him. Later, his parents gave him a push scooter so he could cover the distance between classes in time.
"Freshman year, I do remember him riding into a class on the scooter, which everyone thought was funny," said friend Minh-An Nguyen, 21, who finished top of this year's graduating class. "I remember him riding around campus. He was so small."
Nguyen said Andrew was curious about everything and seemed to make friends easily enough. But, of course, he wasn't able to meet them at night for parties.
Andrew said those first months were the hardest.
"I was a foot shorter than everyone. It was really weird," he said. "Everyone was thinking, 'What's a small kid like him doing here?' "
Andrew's parents and two younger brothers began spending most of their time living in an apartment they'd gotten near the university. By the end of that first course, Andrew was tutoring half the honor students, Reinhardt said — an arrangement that could have backfired.
"But he was funny and relaxed, and they fell in love with him."
Reinhardt said things don't always work out so well.
"A couple of other 12-year-olds have come in since him, and they have bombed," he said. "They were so socially maladjusted, they were dangerous to have in the lab."
Often parents are to blame, the professor said.
"There have been intellectually qualified students, but in every case, there's been a very aggressively pushy parent," he said. "The trick for the faculty is to unscramble that and figure out if the child is ready, rather than the parent."
Reinhardt said Andrew's parents handled the situation well. He added that Andrew did show his youth at one point — when he "only" got an A-minus in that first course.
"He was in shock," Reinhardt said. "He never imagined he wouldn't be the top student in anything. Two years later, when I met him for lunch, he was laughing hysterically that he was so worried about it."
Andrew said his motivation comes mostly from within.
"I maybe feel a little bit of that pressure from grandparents and other family members," he said, "but a lot of it is me pressuring myself more than anything."
During his first year at the UW, Andrew began applying to become a regular student. He was rejected by Harvard University, which has a policy of accepting only students older than 16. After three months of discussions, the UW registrar's office agreed to allow Andrew back as a fully matriculated student.
The only younger UW student to graduate was 15.
"That's his destiny"
Andrew has not had typical college life
In his first couple of years at college, Andrew remained shy in person, but his fame — especially in Asia — was on the rise.
He had his own Web site, a self-published autobiography that was translated into Chinese, book tours in Taiwan and adoring fans even younger than he was. He and his brother Patrick, now 15, had earlier started a foundation — the World Children's Organization — which, backed with about $200,000 from their parents, began sending water filters to developing countries.
"We tried to encourage him but not plant the idea," David Hsu explained. "You see so many stories about gifted children who went awry, who are self-centered and selfish and can't contribute. We want our kids to focus not on themselves but other people."
By his senior year, Andrew was starting to withdraw from the spotlight. He stopped updating his Web site journal and even delisted his name from the publicly accessible university database. It wasn't exactly rebellion, but it did appear to be a change driven by the teen.
"I talked with Andrew, and he said he doesn't mind the attention, but he doesn't particularly like the attention," David Hsu said.
His father said Andrew has kept a sense of balance in his life by playing soccer and working for the foundation. But David Hsu also acknowledged that Andrew has skipped experiences cherished by many other students — living in the dorms, going to parties, dating.
"I think he's missed out on these things," David Hsu said. "But that's his destiny."
The Hsu family is relocating to California to be with their son. Andrew may be a doctoral student but he is, after all, still too young to live alone.
So what is the 16-year-old's destiny now? Andrew said one day he wants to help find treatments or cures for neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and autism.
He rejected the idea of getting a medical degree.
"I would be acquiring knowledge that is already known," he said. "I'm more interested in discovering the unknown."
Reinhardt, the professor, said he would be happy if Andrew were to become a "normal, bright scientist."
And Andrew's father? Asked if he was excited to see his son graduate with three degrees, he paused.
"I'm happy. But I'll probably be happier when he gets his Nobel Prize."
Joyce scolded him.
"No," he added, "I'm kidding."
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or email@example.com
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