Educating Gabriel, 13, an off-the-charts prodigy
Gabriel See is only 13, but when classes started at the University of Washington recently, he began his seventh graduate-level math class, on applied linear algebra.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
When he was 8 years old, Gabriel See got a score on the math part of the SAT that would be the envy of most high-school seniors.
When he was 9, he galloped through high-school Advanced Placement math and science classes — calculus, statistics, physics, chemistry and biology — scoring a perfect 5 in each subject.
When he was 10, he worked on T-cell receptor research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
When he was 11, he won a silver medal at a competition on synthetic biology for undergraduate college students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Last month, at 13, Gabriel was named one of the top 10 high-school inventors in the country by Popular Science magazine, even though, technically, he's attending a junior-high school.
Ernest Henley, physics professor, dean emeritus at the University of Washington and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has never met a student quite like him. "Frankly, I have never seen a boy of his age who displays as much intelligence and aptitude for learning," Henley said. "He is one of a kind."
That kind of off-the-charts intelligence comes with a conundrum, though: Because he's only 13, Gabriel is not emotionally ready to handle programs designed for older students. His intellectual abilities raise the question: How do you map out an education for a boy at the extreme end of the gifted population?
"Honestly, I don't know what's next for Gabriel," said Dan Phelan, who oversees accelerated programs for the Lake Washington School District. "All of us are puzzling a bit right now ... He's doing work that's way beyond what I can understand. But socially, he's not ready to be set loose in the adult world."
Gabriel's father, Jason See, said: "Trying to find the right program for him is very difficult. There is no program that caters to his level. He is out of the norm for the supergifted."
His parents, Jason and Valerie, want him to have a normal teenage upbringing, so for half the day Gabriel attends a small, arts-oriented junior-high school in the Lake Washington School District called Renaissance School of Art and Reasoning, where he takes dance, drama and language arts.
He started taking upper-level math classes at the UW in 2009, and in 2010 began taking graduate math classes; this quarter, he's taking applied linear algebra. He's on the YMCA Sammamish Swim Team, takes music classes and plays Ultimate Frisbee on Fridays.
Quiet and reserved, Gabriel is most comfortable discussing advanced mathematics or molecular biology. He's not good with questions about typical teenage pursuits, but he will explain to you the concepts he is studying in applied linear algebra this fall, if you are smart enough to understand him.
When he's not in class, he's working through a stack of books at home; he keeps a list of everything he has read. He's absorbed 52 textbooks on science and math: read the physics lectures of Richard Feynman, and books on robot programming, systems biology, immunobiology, fractals, Latin (a new passion), music theory and the work of Fibonacci, René Descartes, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, among others.
He's studied chaos theory, string theory, quantum mechanics and nuclear science. Along the way, he's also devoured popular fiction and classic literature — Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia and most of the works of William Shakespeare ("Not all of them," he notes, modestly).
He has a younger brother, Michael, 10, and the two boys are especially close, his mother said.
Gabriel has a laser focus on math and science, but the UW's Robinson Center program for early-entrance students — those younger than 15 — is not a good fit because he has already skipped over so much undergraduate work, his dad says.
"Keeping him engaged is critical, and so far, reasonably successful," said William Monahan, Gabriel's Advanced Placement (AP) biology teacher at Eastlake High.
A unique experience
In elementary school, Gabriel was placed in the district's program for highly capable students, but it wasn't until third grade that the adults around him started to realize the depths of his intellectual abilities.
At age 8, he began teaching himself calculus and physics from sources he found on the Internet. Curious to know how much he was learning, his parents signed him up for the SAT; he scored a 720 out of 800 on the math portion, placing him in the 95th percentile for college-bound high-school students.
That score plus Gabriel's math notations — he had written out pages and pages of solutions to math and physics problems — sent the Sees to Elizabeth Sirjani, who was then the math chair at Eastlake. She confirmed that Gabriel had taught himself AP-level math and physics work on his own.
"We started scrambling then," said Phelan, of the Lake Washington district's accelerated program.
Gabriel began taking math and science at Eastlake, while remaining in elementary school for music, gym class, recess and library. When he was 9, he joined Monahan's biology class, a college-level course usually taken by high-school juniors and seniors.
Too small to see what was going on while sitting in a regular chair, Gabriel often ended up perched on a table, his short legs swinging in space, Monahan said. By November, he had finished reading the AP biology textbook on his own. He grasped the science quicker than students twice his age, and when it was time to do a biology lab, "he would get in there and tell the seniors, 'Let me get it done,' " Monahan said.
"It's been, almost at every turn in the road, a unique experience," he added. "It's like a beautiful mind — we're talking about something that's pretty unique here."
His teachers say Gabriel is capable of digesting and storing information in great gulps, and then making connections with other things he had already learned.
"Everything I threw at him, he just got," said Melissa Nivala, who was a graduate student in the applied math department at the UW in 2007 when she began tutoring Gabriel in graduate-level math. "And he loved it. We would work until I was mentally exhausted. I would tell him, 'OK, we need to stop, because I'm tired of thinking.' "
Nivala would give Gabriel a textbook on a subject — say, chaos theory — and Gabriel would read the book in a few days. He could then answer specific questions and open-ended questions on the subject. He even remembered the exact page number in the book where certain formulas first appeared, Nivala said, hinting at a photographic-like memory.
For any parent whose child has unusual intellectual gifts, finding the right program is a challenge; for Gabriel's parents, it's been that process on steroids. In 2008, Jason See found a way for Gabriel to do research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
And in 2009, he persuaded professors in the UW's Department of Bioengineering to let Gabriel join a team that was assembling an entry for MIT's International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition for undergraduates.
Jason See keeps a thick folder, filled with letters of recommendation from professors, test scores and transcripts, to help reinforce the somewhat hard-to-fathom story of his son's accomplishments.
"Gabriel's dad is a pretty good advocate for him," Phelan said.
The iGEM competition has been Gabriel's most public success, and it's what caught the eye of Popular Science's editors.
"We originally had some other undergraduates interested in the project," said postdoctoral student Sean Sleight. "He (Gabriel) pretty much intimidated them, because he was so brilliant. We kind of joke that he did more in one summer than a team of undergraduates."
With occasional help from bioengineering professor Herbert Sauro, Gabriel built a prototype model of a robot that could disperse small amounts of fluid into a plate of 96 wells. The greatest challenge was getting the robot to make tiny, precise movements in space — requiring Gabriel to puzzle out math formulas, and then write original computer programming that would allow the robot to move in three dimensions.
Gabriel is quick to point out that he wasn't successful right away: "The first one failed mostly because it was unstable."
The project required him to do three-dimensional trigonometry, which "is not elementary stuff — you do that in university," Sauro said. "And he worked it out himself."
The project won a silver medal. "There was quite a bit of buzz that year at iGEM," Sleight said. "Here's this 11-year-old that turns everything on its head."
Gabriel's machine could be built for about $750, much less than the $10,000 price tag for such machines, which would make it more affordable to startup companies and small universities. Because the interface is not user-friendly, though, it's not a product that could be built for the mass market, Sauro said. Still, it hints at Gabriel's potential — an intellect so powerful already that he can see unique solutions, or possibly find ways around problems that stump other researchers.
"Maybe nobody will ever stamp his diploma, but he will be doing research that far exceeds what most people can comprehend," Monahan said.
"He'll probably find a cure for cancer," Sleight said. "Or something bigger."
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or email@example.com
Information in this article, originally published Oct. 8, 2011, was corrected Oct. 10, 2011. A previous version of this story gave incorrect dates for Gabriel's classes at the University of Washington and a different explanation for why he was not a good fit for the university's Robinson Center program. Gabriel began taking upper-level math classes at the UW in 2009, and in 2010 began taking graduate math classes. His father, Jason See, said the UW's Robinson Center program is not a good fit because his son will have completed more than enough credit hours of graduate level courses needed to get a masters degree in applied mathematics at the end of this year.
Trending on seattletimes.com
Most viewed photo galleries
The Morning Memo
The Morning Memo jump starts your day with weather, traffic and news
The Seattle Times Historical Archives
Browse our newspaper page archives from 1900-1984
Career Center Blog
Your Opinion Matters
Take our survey and enter to win $100. Enter Now!