Teen Wolfpack: Young Graduate Makes History
Sixteen-year-old Madhusudan Madhavan doesn’t yet have a North Carolina driver’s license — but he does have an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics with a minor in physics from NC State.
The Cary teenager graduated this spring with a 4.0 GPA in just six semesters, plus a handful of classes in multiple summer sessions. After his birthday, he focused on final exams, commencement exercises and a graduation trip to see family in southern India. He put off a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles for his driver’s test.
That rite of passage — skipped by three-quarters of all Generation Z’ers like Madhavan — is about the only test he hasn’t aced in his quick march into adulthood.
A Passion for Learning
“I’ve always had a passion for learning and I’ve always loved to explore new things,” Madhavan says. “Ever since I was a child, I was really curious and I liked to learn.”
He began reading at the age of 2 and was proficient in mathematical functions such as computing averages, medians and modes, as well as advanced multiplication before kindergarten. He outpaced other students in his classes in Wake County Public Schools and spent a brief time in his preteen years preparing for undergraduate classes while being homeschooled.
By the time he was 13, he was ready to enroll in the College of Sciences, not long after his older sister, Aishwarya, began her coursework in the Poole College of Management’s business administration program. Aishwarya often dropped Madhusudan off near SAS Hall for his classes during his first semester — until the global COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person classes for most students for about 18 months.
Madhavan completed his degree roughly three weeks after his 16th birthday.
“To be honest, I knew he was young,” says Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics Alen Alexanderian, one of Madhavan’s mentors. “I had no idea he was quite that young.”
Alina Duca, director of undergraduate programs and a teaching professor of mathematics, first met him at an “Experience NC State” recruiting event for high-achieving admitted students and their families. He was with his father and sister, and Duca initially believed the younger sibling was just tagging along. She soon realized that it was Madhusudan she needed to connect with before he began classes in the fall of 2019.
For Madhavan, son of a first-generation immigrant working in information technology and a homemaker, studying mathematics is more than just multiplication tables, word problems and standardized tests.
It is art.
“I always had the passion to see the beauty of mathematics and its applications,” he says. “That’s what led me here to NC State.”
Young Grads Now Rare
Young students pursuing degrees at the largest school in the University of North Carolina System aren’t exactly unheard of. In fact, when it first opened its doors in 1889, county scholarship recipients were between the ages of 14 and 15 and attended the North Carolina College for Agriculture and Mechanic Arts as a preparatory school to get them ready for post-secondary classes, back when public schools around the state were not standardized. Dedicated patron David Clark graduated with three degrees in engineering from NC State and another from Cornell between 1894 and ‘98 before enlisting to serve in the Spanish American War at the age of 21.
Since State College became North Carolina State University in 1965, however, those young graduates have been rare, though comprehensive records on age at graduation are unavailable.
Records from the university registrar’s office show that Madhavan is the first 16-year-old to graduate since Thomas York of Walkertown, North Carolina, received a degree in 2010. Raleigh-native Stephen Conley, who enrolled in mathematics, received his undergraduate degree in computer science at 16 in the spring of 1998, something significantly rare enough that he was featured in the New York Times, the Associated Press and newspapers around the state.
This past spring, 18-year-old Samantha Kiser of Georgia graduated with a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. She spent two years at Wake Technical Community College before enrolling at NC State and is believed to be the university’s youngest female graduate.
Madhavan is modest about his achievements as a young scholar.
“Most of my professors and even my friends at NC State didn’t actually know my age,” Madhavan says. “So because of that, I didn’t feel any separateness or any struggle to adapt with the various NC State communities.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any specific challenges or issues that I had as a student.”
For most, however, it’s hard to quantify just how young Madhavan is compared to the rest of the university community.
Ready for College
He was born in April 2006, a few months after the billionth song was downloaded from iTunes (“Speed of Sound” by Coldplay) and Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union. Barely a dozen years later, he had no doubts he was ready for college classes.
“I saw that I already had the same educational background as any other student applying to NC State,” he says. “I had taken algebra, calculus, all of those courses. So I thought, given that background, why not give college a shot, especially since NC State is a wonderful university right here in my town.
“I felt like it was the right decision for me.”
Though young, Madhavan succeeded at NC State because he was a mature student, Duca says.
“Madhusudan was just serious about everything he did,” she says. “Even though the material was really easy for him, he was always there answering and asking questions.
“He wanted to do everything really well, but he was also quite balanced and mature in his approach.”
He not only filled his days with undergraduate and graduate-level courses, he also made time for the same activities most high-performing academic students do. He is a member of several NC State student organizations, including the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Society of Undergraduate Mathematics, Society for Multicultural Scientists, Society of Physics Students, Mathematics Insights Club, AI Club and Quantum Information Club. He was also involved in the University Honors Program, the Mathematics Honors Program and Phi Beta Kappa National Honors Society.
“I think that’s about it,” he says. “I always felt completely at home at the university.”
Besides being a perfect A to A-plus student, Madhavan also completed two semester-long research projects, one a mathematical approach to COVID modeling and the other on Zermelo’s navigation problem, in which he not only presented a solution for the 90-year-old optimal control problem but also wrote a detailed history of its use in mathematical optimization.
“I was able to use theoretical math in a real-world setting to solve real-world problems,” he says.
Yet it was the way he solved those problems and the effort he put into them that made an impression on his advisors.
“Of the undergraduate students who choose to do a research project, most only do one, regardless of their age,” Alexanderian says. “Madhusudan completed two. What impressed me most is that he took the time to write about the history of his topics, something practically no one does.”
For his efforts as an undergraduate, Madhavan received the mathematics department’s Outstanding Scholarship Senior Award, was awarded the Gordon Family Scholarship for academic merit and completed the College of Sciences Honors Program. Both projects were fully funded by the National Science Foundation
So what does a 16-year-old with a college degree and a particular flair for math do next?
Madhavan has been accepted into an NC State Ph.D. program in applied mathematics and will begin classes this fall.
“I’m open to see where life takes me,” he says.
Maybe even to the DMV.
This post was originally published in NC State News.