What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.
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Charles Wang. (Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Yang)

Charles Wang. (Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Yang)

Charles Wang earned an 800 on his Math II, Biology, and Chemistry subject tests and scored 5 on the AP Biology, Chemistry, and Calculus BC exams before he turned 12. He reads books with titles like Differential Equations, Dynamical Systems, and an Introduction to Chaos, Third Edition on his own. After talking with Wang about mosquito enzymes, Dr. Tim Herman, the director of the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s center for BioMolecular Modeling, told the boy’s parents that their son makes connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information better than almost anyone he has ever seen. Wang, who attends Virginia's Thomas Jefferson High School, is also taking Chinese I. We talked about that contradiction, his future in research, and sonic hedgehogs.

You just started the school year. What are you taking?

I'm taking Chinese I first period, then quantum mechanics, DNA science, multivariable [calculus], and linear algebra. Fifth period, I'm taking PE online. I'm actually in the biology classroom, doing something called IBET (Integrated Biology, English, and Technology). Biology, English, and technology are all tied together. After that is technology and English.

Do you have any favorites so far?

It's very early in the school year, but I would think that the quantum physics class might be my favorite. I'm not certain. Design and tech might also be very interesting.

What's your earliest memory of learning something that you really enjoyed?

I'm not sure. Sometimes I think my brain makes up memories that do not actually exist. But as long as I can remember, I've been interested in the science and math side of things.

"I think I'm still in the 'sopping up as much knowledge as I can' phase. I have my favorite stuff, but that changes a bit. When I was really young, I apparently liked astronomy a lot. But I've moved away from that by now."

TJ seems very flexible. It's cool that you can take something like Chinese I and also quantum physics.

Normally, this type of arrangement doesn't really happen. Quantum physics, DNA science, and the multivariable are all senior classes. But I've taken the classes below them already. TJ has classes that are better suited to my level in math and science.

Do you like classes like Chinese I that you haven't pursued in the past?

It's only the first few days, so I haven't had time to settle in. I’m not sure yet.

Math and science come naturally to you, and the language classes might not as much. Is that the case?

I think that's the case. I feel pretty advanced in math and science, but my English and humanities are still at my age level.

Do you like the challenge of a class like Chinese I that doesn't come quite as easily?

I'm not quite certain. I don't know if I like it or not yet.

What do you read?

I have almost exhausted the science and math books at my local library.

Do you enjoy reading those textbooks?

Yeah. I find it interesting. I enjoy reading textbooks when I'm learning something new. I actually like it. I'm processing new information and that's enjoyable for me.

You make connections between complex subjects with ease.

That's my biggest thing. It helps me understand the whole picture faster. I'm not actually very good at memorizing all the details.

Sometimes it's difficult for very smart people to explain concepts or ideas to other people. Do you ever find that's the case?

It happens sometimes with my sister, who is three years older than I am. I want to try to help her with her math and science, but she says no because often when I'm explaining something, it goes 10 times over her head.

How have your interests changed as you've gotten older? Are you focusing on specific areas or are you trying to get as much knowledge as possible right now?

I think I'm still in the "sopping up as much knowledge as I can” phase. I have my favorite stuff, but that changes a bit. When I was really young, I apparently liked astronomy a lot. But I've moved away from that by now.

Why did you move away from it?

I'm not certain, but I think it might be that I learned enough about it that it didn't seem too novel anymore.

What are some things you're excited about learning this year?

I've done a lot of intellectual stuff so far, but I'm really interested in lab work. There are a lot of programs I can use. Most of the classes have labs, like DNA science. I'm also working on a proposal for a project where I go and do an experiment that I designed myself. My project is about the sonic hedgehog signaling pathway. Sonic hedgehog is a protein that's used in making all the different sections of the brain, the floor plate makes SHH, and the rest of the cells respond according to the levels of SHH, and my project concerns how the cells detect and respond to sonic hedgehog.

How did you get that idea for the project?

I was interested in knowing how all the different molecules and proteins work to make all the characteristics of the body, and also why usually the body characteristics are so similar for everyone. For example, the arm length of people is roughly constant, and doesn’t vary wildly at all.

Do you have hobbies like instruments or sports?

I play the violin, and I play tennis, but it's not the centerpiece.

Do you enjoy those activities?

Sure.

How do you like TJ?

So far, I like high school. At the public schools, math and science was way below my level. It's the first school where I'm being challenged.

Is it a challenge because of the other students or the teachers who are pushing you?

It's because of the subjects I can take. I don't think many high schools have a course on quantum mechanics or multivariable calculus.

You're younger than most of the students. Do you feel young?

No. For some reason, I like working with older people than working with my peers.

Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?

The very obvious answer is that I would like to be in academics. That's been my dream from the start. I like math and science, so I want to go into research. I haven't decided on biology or physics yet, and I'd like to pursue them both further, but I definitely want to do research.

Who should I talk to next?

Mr. Vern William is the next one to interview. Mr. William is one of the best teachers I have met. He teaches honors math at Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia. He was named to the National Mathematics Advisory Panel in 2006.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.

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