For Teen Math Whiz, Aptitude Has Ups And Downs

Raphael-Joel Lim of Indianapolis was a finalist for the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, the most coveted science prize awarded to American high school students. His research project has been widely praised for its originality and depth. But being a 17-year-old genius can be a blessing and a burden.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. We now know one of the winners of a prestigious math and science award for high school students. Prestigious may be another way to say the winner gets $100,000. It's called the Siemens Competition in Math and Technology, and the individual winner is Wen Chyan of Denton, Texas. His research focused on a way to prevent the spread of infections in hospitals. Now, Mr. Chyan beat out a number of teenage finalists who discovered new strategies to regulate cholesterol, developed cutting-edge gene research, and even solved a 30-year-old math problem. One of those 17-year-old finalists so intrigued NPR's Claudio Sanchez that he went to Indiana to meet him.

Mr. RAPHAEL-JOEL LIM: (Winner, Siemens Competition): My name is Raphael-Joel Lim, and most who know me call me R.J. It's just easier to say, I guess.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: R.J. Lim stands about 5 feet tall. Straight shoulder-length black hair hides his eyes and frames the face of a serious young man trapped in a slender prepubescent boy's body.

Mr. LIM: I've always been catching up with my body. So I'm like 12 years old. I'm not actually 12, but I'm 17.

SANCHEZ: It's his intellect, of course, that far surpasses that of a typical 17-year-old. As one of his teachers puts it, R.J. possesses a splendid mind. From that mind came R.J.'s contribution to this year's Siemens math and science competition. The title of his project: "Previously Unknown Parts of the Greene-Kleitman Partition for the Tamari Lattice." I ask R.J., so what is that? He hesitates.

Mr. LIM: Well, let's just say that the project didn't require that much background.

SANCHEZ: I can never get him to give me an answer. And even if he had, I wouldn't have understood it anyway. His math teacher doesn't.

Dr. FRANKLIN SHOBE (Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities): It certainly looks impressive. Now, there's a lot here I don't understand.

SANCHEZ: That's Franklin Shobe, R.J.'s mentor at the Indiana Academy for Science, Math, and Humanities - a public boarding school for gifted students.

Mr. SHOBE: Even though I'm a discreet mathematician as opposed to continuous, which means I'm kind of the same general area...

SANCHEZ: Whatever that means. Still, it's clear that here at the academy, R.J. has thrived and found his niche. It wasn't easy, because for R.J. mathematics has been as much a burden as a gift.

Mr. LIM: It probably all started when my dad, he taught me how to add and subtract with fruits and stuff. I was fairly young, maybe three. And I guess that's how I got a head start on other kids. And they said I was like the human calculator or something.

SANCHEZ: R.J. came to hate that nickname. And while his impressive academic achievements early on made his parents proud, they saw how their son's brilliance also isolated him from other children his age. And they acknowledge that hopscotching around the country every two to four years didn't help. R.J. says the move to Indianapolis was especially hard and disorienting.

Mr. LIM: Actually, there's a time in tenth grade where I felt really lonely, and I just became really unmotivated to do anything at all. And there was probably a period where I just refused to do any work, and I just stopped.

SANCHEZ: Remarkably, in the middle of that deep, deep depression, R.J. remained a top student with nearly perfect standardized test scores. That's how the academy heard about him. He enrolled as a high school junior. And at an elite math camp in Texas, R.J. learned number theory. There he met Mark Zhang, his teammate for the Siemens Competition. R.J. says Mark was somebody he could relate to without feeling like a freak.

Mr. LIM: Part of doing math is partly hedonistic kind of thing, but I feel like I want - I need to be surrounded by people I can really talk to or people I think are admirable. And those are the kind of people I really enjoy.

SANCHEZ: R.J. loves being around other smart kids, but he yearns deeply to be seen as something more than a math prodigy. He says he wants to be free to choose whatever he decides to be. R.J.'s English teacher at the academy, Margaret Smith, says he definitely has a flip side.

Ms. MARGARET SMITH (Assistant Professor of English, Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities): R.J. is an extremely sophisticated, mature, and profound writer. This is, as his mother says, a man of few words and of depth. Even psychology may end up being a direction he'd want to go in, but he could also just keep being a math genius. I don't know.

SANCHEZ: That's what college is all about, says Smith. It's a chance to explore and figure things out. She says R.J. needs to realize he's got time, lots of time. Right now R.J. has narrowed his college choices to Stanford and MIT. So with that in mind, I ask him, what would you like to be recognized for?

Mr. LIM: Maybe, I guess, for being a nice guy. I don't know. I'm not just some guy immersed in mathematics.

SANCHEZ: It's the one answer from R.J. that sounds like it's coming from a 17-year-old, not a math prodigy, not a man trapped in a boy's body, but the real R.J. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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