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He went to MIT at the age of 14, and now he’s changing the world

by Dr Boyce Watkins

David Van Valen has a life that is built for legend.  The young scientist and his family set trends years ago when he was accepted to MIT at the age of 13.  While other kids his age were mastering videogames and hip-hop lyrics, David was preparing to dominate the future, taking a whopping 25 college courses while he was in high school, which he started at the “wise old age” of 10.

Halfway through the sixth grade, the work was just too easy.  So, David’s mother petitioned to have him sent directly to high school. When the school said no, she simply did what any good parent would do:  Worked around the system.  She and her husband had David and his brother Joseph homeschooled for two years, giving them a far better education than the one they would have received in any public (or even private) school system.

By the way, Joseph (David’s brother) was also admitted to MIT at the age of 15.  But that’s another story for another day.   Let’s focus on David’s greatness right now, since two versions of this might be too much to digest.

David speaks plainly about the culture of hard work and discipline that his parents created in their home.  He says that the training from his parents was “intense” and that he and his brother were always pushed to become the best that they could be.

“We studied math four hours a day and read four hours a day. Mostly we read the classics,” David said about his rigorous homeschooling lessons.

David says that homeschooling was a much better fit for him than the slug of standardized education.  He says that when he left school, he was doing Algebra 1.  But when he went back to school, he was doing Calculus.   So, even while entering high school at the age of 10, he was light years ahead of his classmates when it came to educational preparation.  Perhaps it was the sheer boredom of high school which led this 10 year old kid to take 25 college courses during high school, earning mostly As in his classes with just a few Bs.

While at MIT, David majored in Math and Physics, getting degrees in both fields.  He then went on to get a PhD in Applied Physics at The California Institute of Technology in 2011 and an MD at UCLA in 2013.  In case you’re wondering, any one of these feats might be considered a lifetime achievement for most.  The PhD alone is incredibly difficult, but to earn an MD at the same time is simply unheard of.

As a young man, David said that his goal was to do something that “has a lasting impact on society.”

He comes from good stock.  Raised in Martinsburg, West Virginia, David is the son of Joseph Van Valen and Lauretta Carroll   Joseph graduated from MIT in 1975.  Carroll has a degree from Caltech and a master’s degree from Cornell University.  David’s father was an electrical engineeer and his mother ran a software company from her home.

When asked years ago what defines him as a person, David said “I don’t quit. Never. It’s just not an option for me. If I quit, that would be admitting there’s something that’s absolutely impossible for me to do, and that’s hard for me to accept.”

David has faced some setbacks in the classroom.  He says that when he was in the fifth grade, he took a test for talented students and failed.

“Instead of being shattered, I studied so hard the next year I got an A. Failure only makes me work harder. It’s like, whatever doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger,” he said.

Although David says that Einstein and Newton are inspirations for him, neither of them are role models.

“I’m not trying to pattern myself after them. I’m trying to be my own person and to develop as much as I can as an individual. I’m trying to be just like myself,” he told the MIT Spectrum during his first year of college.

Currently, David is a Post Doctoral Fellow at Stanford University.  He is doing research on how organisms process and transfer information.   According to his Linked In profile:

His work has demonstrated how signaling proteins can use flexible chains of amino acids to modulate how they respond to chemical stimuli. He has also applied single-molecule techniques to the study of bacterial viruses. In particular, he developed a single-molecule Hershey-Chase experiment, enabling the first visualization of single viruses infecting single bacterial cells in real time.

David has won numerous awards, including the Johns Hopkins Mathematics Talent Search, Honors at the National Chemistry Olympiad, a NIH MSTP Fellowship, and a Fannie and John Hertz Yaser Abu-Mostafa Graduate Fellowship.

So, if you want something to put on your child’s wall other than rappers or athletes, David Van Valen might be a perfect choice for a 21st century superhero.  He is clearly positioned to own a large piece of the future and serves as a template for excellence in our community.

Here are some quick lessons we can learn from David’s journey, which appears to be just beginning:

1) The in-home culture created by a child’s parents is one of the most definitive factors in determining that child’s outcomes.  Great black men are not built by accident.  They are created through a series of pre-planned and well-structured decisions by those who’ve been selected as stewards of their future.  If David’s parents had been football fanatics, putting him on the field for hours at a time, he would be another great black athlete.  If he were to spend his hours listening to the radio, he’d be another wannabe rapper.  So, what you allow to sink into the minds of your children at an early age will typically determine how they see themselves and how they see the world.  David is a product of his culture.

2) Intellect means almost nothing without persistence and development.  The way David’s parents trained him to set high goals, never give up and work as hard as he can will play a greater role in his success than almost anything else.  To that extent, his educational achievements are merely manifestations of his internal attributes and personality.  In other words, a focus on value systems means a great deal when helping your child figure out how to respond to difficult challenges.  David will surely run into complex problems, tough personal choices and numerous obstacles in his career.  His intellect will help him a little, his education will help him a lot, but his persistence and sheer grit will make the difference between getting what he wants and walking away disappointed.

3) Had David’s parents not had the courage to think outside the box, their sons would have merely been smart kids doing relatively good things, and not brilliant kids doing unbelievable things. If the system is getting in the way of your child’s greatness, then you must knock the system out of the way.  The mother and father are the first and most important teachers in a child’s life.  Only share that power with individuals and institutions you can trust.  Based on the history of our public school system destroying black geniuses on a regular basis, I am not sure if we can trust the system to educate our children.

 

SOURCE

Dr Boyce Watkins is a Finance PhD and author of the book, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about College.”  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. 

 

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29 thoughts on “He went to MIT at the age of 14, and now he’s changing the world

  1. Jacqueline

    I love hearing stories like this!!!!! Instead of all the negative press that young African American boys/Men get.

    Reply
    • Sandra

      Actually there are a lot of smart young men ,you know what holds them back . I witness a friend of mine telling me that her brother had good grades what brought him down is peer pressure, it’s like that for females to

      Reply
  2. crystal

    Keep these articles coming. Love hearing how African Americans are currently making contributions to society.

    Reply
  3. Robert Bell

    This is the type of Black man to be proud of and celebrate.
    Why can’t all Black boys in high school today at least finish High school by age 20.

    Reply
  4. elrancho

    Fantastic example of what is possible when you have great parenting, support and encouragement. We can’t all be brilliant like David but we can all be something. We all have the ability to contribute something positive to the world if we put our minds to it but we do need support and loving guidance.

    Reply
    • SMSundance

      I love elraancho’s comment, great parenting produces great kids. Barbara Bush (President Bush’s Mom said it best . ” in order to be a good parent you have to almost be child centered”.

      Reply
  5. Nick Westbrooks

    I love this story as well as the lessons we can take away. “The in-home culture created by a child’s parents is one of the most definitive factors in determining that child’s outcomes.” I love this, because the late great Amos Wilson told us this back in 1978 in the “Developmental Psychology of the Black Child.”

    Reply
  6. Todd

    Why is it that we don’t hear great stories such as this? We only hear about thugs, shootings, drug dealers, sports figures, and entertainers in the Black community.

    Let’s learn to celebrate our best and brightest young people like the Jews, Asians and White community; resulting in a more prosperous and thriving culture.

    Thanks for the article; it’s a breath of fresh air!

    Reply
  7. Robert Gilmore

    Now…..This wonderful TRUTH and others like it are found throughout our communities quite frequently, but all we’re bombarded with is negative images of our young people. Thank you Dr. Boyce, for continually keeping us aware of these beautiful and inspirational facts. Congratulations to David and Joseph Van Valen and their parents for REACHING FOR THE STARS!!! GOD BLESS YOU!!!!

    Reply
  8. Peggy Seats

    My friend, the brilliant Dr. Boyce Watkins, thank you for again bringing us the extraordinarily encouraging stories which speak to the brilliance and uplifting aspects of our community which would never see the light of day were it not for you and your team of master communicators.

    I again wish to express my appreciation for all you do in uplifting our community with a balanced report on our plight as a community still very much struggling for our genuine liberation in America and the world.

    Again, in my humble opinion, I believe that you should receive a Pulitzer Prize for your extraordinary documentation of our historic plight in modern day America as it documents stories which would never see the light of day were it not for you and your team.

    Thank you too for serving as our Honorary Keynote at our first Dialogue on Race in America event hosted by Adm. William Sizemore, Grand Executive Director of the Scottish Rite Masons, at the beautiful House of the Temple on Banneker’s birthday in 2011. We are planning our next one on his birthday again this year and invite you to Chair our Executive Committee for that event. The Best, PSeats

    Reply
  9. elrancho2

    Fantastic example of what is possible when you have great parenting, support and encouragement. We can’t all be brilliant like David but we can all be something. We all have the ability to contribute something positive to the world if we put our minds to it but we do need support and loving guidance.

    Reply
  10. Cindy Radtke

    Thanks for this article! So inspiring and necessary to understand what talent we gain by nurturing it. Sadly, as an educator, I see the students who are kept in traditional school regardless of race–but clearly stand out brilliant in one or two areas– slip into utter frustration, anger, mental illness, drugs, and are so fed up with any system that they actually work regular hourly jobs after high school instead of having been nurtured well and thus work to solve global problems and change the world for the better. These are kids with websites at 4, research papers at 5, etc. Awesome for the parents and while my kid is doing ok in school, makes me ponder things…she is ready for college subjects in a few areas at 10th grade.

    Reply
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  12. Ricardo Santiago

    What this young man has accomplished is truly phenonmenal, his parents have done a splendid job in raising their sons. I don’t want to assume anything, but I do hope and pray that they realize everything they have and will accomplish comes from no other than God who created us! Jesus, the crucified Savior of the world said it best in Matthew 16:26, “for what shall a man profit if he gain the world and lose his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? It just seems to me that some thanks should have been given to God!

    Reply
  13. Mary Harrell

    BLACK AMERICANS HAS BEEN DISENFRANCHISED AND ARE BEING TREATED LOWER THAN THE ANIMALS. THE DEERS AND BEARS ARE NOT BEING SHOT AS MANY TIMES AS THE WHITE POLICE OFFICERS ARE SHOOTING BLACK AMERICANS YOUTHS. BLACK AMERICANS ARE BEING TREATED LIKE THEY ARE NOT HUMAN BEINGS. WE ARE HUMANS AND MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD ALMIGHTY. BLACK AMERICANS ARE ENTITLED TO PEACE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, JUST AS WHITE AMERICANS ENJOYS TODAY. 

    NO JUSTICE NO PEACE, NO JUSTICE NO PEACE, NO JUSTICE NO PEACE! THE MAJORITY OF BLACKS DON’T FEEL HATE, WE FEEL DISENFRANCHISED DUE TO THE WAY WHIITE AMERICANS HAVE DEPRIVED US OF EQUALITY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT WROTE BLACK AMERICANS A CHECK WITH INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.THE CONSTITUTION STATES THAT ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL WITH CERTAIN INEVITABLE RIGHTS. HOWEVER, THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT KNOWS THAT BLACK AMERICANS RIGHTS ARE BEING VIOLATED BY WHITE AMERICANS. THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT HAVE NEVER APOLOGIZE TO BLACK AMERICANS FOR SLAVERY AND OVER THE 100 MILLION DEATHS OF BLACKS DOING SLAVERY, BECAUSE SLAVERY WAS INSTITUTIONALIZED BY THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT. THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT NEVER PAID RESTITUTION TO BLACK AMERICANS. HOWEVER, THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PAID RESTITUTION TO JAPAN FOR THE INJUSTICES THAT THEY DID TO JAPAN. NOW THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT IS TRYING TO FIND A WAY TO CORRECT AN INJUSTICE WITHOUT FIRST APOLOGIZE TO BLACK AMERICANS FOR SLAVERY, AND PAYING RESTITUTION FOR THE INJUSTICES THAT THE UNITED STATES DID TO BLACK AMERICANS. PAY RESTITUTION TO THE BLACKS JUST AS THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PAID TO JAPAN. NO JUSTICE NO PEACE, NO JUSTICE NO PEACE!!!

    BLACK AMERICANS HAS BEEN DISENFRANCHISED BY WHITE AMERICANS DUE TO THE FACT THAT RACISM WAS INSTITUTIONALIZED BY THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT. MORE THAN 100 MILLION BLACKS WERE MURDERED BY WHITE AMERICANS DOING SLAVERY. MANY WHITE AMERICANS TREAT BLACK AMERICANS AS IF SLAVERY WAS NEVER ABOLISHED. THEREFORE, BLACK AMERICANS ARE TREATED LIKE SECOND CLASS CITIZENS AND ARE STILL TODAY BEING GUNNED DOWN BY THE POLICE OFFICERS THAT WERE SWORN TO UPHOLD THE LAW AND PROTECT OUR RIGHTS.

    Martin Luther king Jr. was very educated, he earned many awards. However, the white man could not wait to kill him because he asked that blacks be treated equal to whites.

    Reply
    • mushman

      Mary Harrell, Everything you said was right on the money. Black people are constantly denied their human rights, equal rights and equal representation all across the divide.

      Reply
  14. Barbara

    Congratulations to such wonderful parents. It’s good to read stories where our children achieving in school and not just on the basketball court capable of throwing a ball through a ring (A monkey can be trained to throw a ball through a ring. You don’t need much of a brain to do that). As Black people, we should have the same focus as these wonderful parents of David. We are a great people.

    Reply
  15. Daphne N Biyela

    I was uplifted by the story of the young man who started school at 10 but did exceedingly well at school. I even luuuuve the name you call yourselves!!!! Although I have been a teacher all my life, I feel as if I did not do much for my community. I would love to spend the rest of my life serving and uplifting my community with my hand tightly linked to that of Christ. We are a great people indeed. We should allow no one else to tell us otherwise. I am proud of David!!!!

    Reply

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