Wise beyond his years
Albert Wong graduated from UT Arlington at 15. Now he’s pursuing a Ph.D. through a Harvard-MIT research fellowship
Albert Wong has amassed an incredible list of accomplishments in his 16 years, but he still thrives on discoveries.
An Honors College bachelor of science graduate at 15, Albert began working on his doctorate this past summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University under a fellowship that allows flexibility to pursue his research interest—targeted/smart drug delivery.
He’s also an accomplished concert pianist. When he first heard a piano at age 3, he insisted he needed one, “because I am a pianist.” When he was 4, his parents bought him a piano and he began lessons. One year later, he won the Grand Prize at the North Texas Piano Competition. He began performing publicly at 6 and released his first CD at 9; his second CD was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Albert learned to read at 2 and was always interested in science. He first visited UT Arlington in fall 2001 when he played the violin in a “Frontiers in Science” lecture.
“We were intrigued by this incredibly talented 11-year-old who talked with us afterward about his passion for science,” said Lori Norris, coordinator of special projects for the College of Science.
Neal Smatresk, dean of science at the time, befriended the gifted youngster. He told Albert about the research that linked music, math and science. When he was ready for college, Dr. Smatresk told him, UT Arlington would roll out the welcome mat.
Albert is the only child of computer scientists Chi-Pong and Yen-Lih Wong. The Wongs lived in Boston when Albert was born, the first baby of the year on Jan. 1, 1990, perhaps a harbinger of his precocity. A few months later, the family moved to Texas.
“My mother left her job after I was born to devote full time to raising me,” Albert said. “I will always be grateful to both of my parents for that sacrifice. It made it possible for me to achieve what I have.”
He attended public school in Carrollton until third grade. Then, recognizing that their son was not happy with the traditional way of education, his parents made the decision to home-school. Yen-Lih often stayed up until 3 in the morning preparing lessons. By the time he was 9, Albert was directing his own education, as well as recording and performing as a pianist.
The arrangement worked well until he was 12. Then fate—that word again— intervened.
On Memorial Day 2002, the Wongs were in a serious automobile accident. Yen-Lih’s sternum was broken and she almost died. Albert thought he would die on the spot. “My life flashed in front of my eyes. I thought I could not die because I wanted to finish the calculus problem I had started that morning.”
He hurt his hand, an injury that would take three months to heal and force a sabbatical from piano and violin.
“I did a bit of one-handed piano playing,” he said, before realizing it was going to be a long three months. “The accident opened questions about the purpose of life. I realized life can be short, and I wanted to explore life beyond music.”
So he decided to go to college.
Although most children his age were starting junior high, Albert says he fit right in at UT Arlington and was readily accepted by his Honors College classmates. “I felt that I was an old soul because I had already had a career as a musician and because I felt better connections with my professors than my schoolmates did.”
Jenkins Garrett Professor of Biology Howard J. Arnott taught Albert introductory biology.
“He was a very bright child who loved to figure things out,” Dr. Arnott said. “Over the years, he has developed into a focused young man.”
Albert would often come see Arnott, and they would talk about all sorts of things. Arnott gave Albert a water plant to study, one whose normal flat leaves become a fern-like network when the programmed cell death occurs.
Albert used the concept of apoptosis and other ideas from genetics, chemistry and biology and generated a theory to explain that the location-dependent remodeling of the leaf is probably caused by chemical hormone and/or pH gradients in a process similar to that in the development of the nematode worm. He proposed theories concerning the degradation of the cell wall in the programmed-death cells and the genetic aspects of selective programmed-cell-death activation.
Albert and Arnott also discussed music, and Arnott says he enjoys playing Albert’s CDs while in the car.
Professors learn from student
Honors College Dean Robert McMahon, Albert’s honors thesis adviser, met him at a lecture. After entering college and as his interest in biology grew, Albert often visited with Dr. McMahon, a biologist. The two still communicate frequently.
McMahon said that when it came time to supervise the young student’s thesis, he and his co-supervisor, biology Professor Robert Neill, were way outside their areas of expertise. They learned along with their student.
“He was looking at ways to model and understand the biomechanical properties of soft tissues,” McMahon said. “As he developed models from published data, we learned from him.
“Albert has a brilliant mind. He was far beyond anyone his age I had ever met, yet he was still a young boy. Being able to work with him as a mentor was a rare honor—both an enjoyable experience and an enlightening one.”
The Wongs moved to Boston in the summer so Albert could begin his research at MIT and Harvard. He spent the first weeks there writing research proposals, ordering supplies and setting up his lab. He immediately felt a connection with the professors, postdoctoral fellows and doctoral candidates.
“The best part is that I work with Dr. Robert Langer directly,” Albert said. “I have been Dr. Langer’s admirer ever since I laid my eyes on one of his research papers a few years back. He has nearly 550 patents and the same passion in the field of targeted drug delivery as I do. He is a great adviser because he inspires me to think deeper and does not tell me what to do.”
Although he is not performing these days because of time constraints, Albert still plays the piano. A friend who’s a postdoctoral researcher in Langer’s lab also loves to play.
“We plan to organize a music club. We believe there are other music lovers who would enjoy getting together to play music,” Albert said. “Music helps me wind down.”
He says intelligence alone does not determine one’s fate.
“I would like everyone to know that it is courage and determination that help me get what I want. And I believe that we can all get what we want if we are willing to work for it.”
— Sue Stevens