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Medical Student, 12, Finds the Time to Be a Boy

Sho Yano is in the M.D.- PhD program at the University of Chicago. But he still plays with his pet rabbit and reads children's books.

August 31, 2003|Martha Irvine | Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO — Sho Yano's mother hands him his lunch for school in a brown paper bag -- a turkey sandwich and cookies included.

"You don't need any bones today? No bones?" Kyung Yano asks her bespectacled 12-year-old, who shakes his head as they head out their apartment door. She wants to make sure he isn't supposed to take samples of spinal bones and a human skull to class, where he's learning about human anatomy.

It's the kind of morning many young students and their parents experience -- except for one thing. Sho isn't in junior high. He's a first-year medical school student at the University of Chicago, where he's the youngest ever to attend one of the university's professional schools.

If he weren't also getting his PhD with his medical degree -- thus, pushing his age at graduation to 19 or 20 -- he'd be on course to become the youngest person to graduate from any medical school. According to Guinness World Records, a 17-year-old graduated from medical school in New York in 1995.

But Sho is utterly uninterested in setting records. He also shuns the labels often used to describe him -- "prodigy" and "little genius" among them.

Yes, he has an IQ above 200. And yes, he graduated in three years from Chicago's Loyola University, summa cum laude. But for him, going to school is about learning as much as he can.

"And there's a lot of stuff to know," he says, as he thumbs through one of his extra-thick medical books.

While many kids his age have been spending their summers at camp or the beach, Sho has been dissecting a human cadaver and learning the intricacies of the 12 cranial nerves. And so far, having scored A's on his first few quizzes, he's handling the work better than some who are older.

Some classmates were wary at first. That included Luka Pocivavsek, 22, a medical student who shared a room with his young classmate at a retreat for new students in the program.

At first, he thought Sho -- who often pauses to ponder questions before answering and chooses his words carefully -- was very quiet. He wondered how such a young student could handle the emotional and social rigors of being a doctor. But Sho quickly won him over.

"He has surpassed my expectations in every imaginable way," he says. "His initial shyness has given way to a very sociable guy. And his understanding of complex social and political issues is very keen and observant."

In some ways, Sho is a typical 12-year-old. He has a pet rabbit and he sometimes squabbles with his sister. And although he's not a fan of Harry Potter, he adores books by best-selling children's author Brian Jacques.

At school, he's more of the little brother figure. His classmates tease him, for instance, about finding a girlfriend. But they also go out of their way to include him, often socializing in their homes instead of bars -- or choosing movies that are rated no higher than PG.

Still, pathology professor Tony Montag says he sometimes forgets that Sho is younger than his classmates. "Of course, to me, they're all kids. So he doesn't seem particularly different than any of the students," says Montag, who teaches Sho and other first-year students about microscopic tissues in histology class.

Born in Portland, Ore., Sho spent most of his early years in California, where is father, Katsura, runs the American subsidiary of a Japanese shipping company. Sho lives in the university's family housing with his mother, who originally came to this country from South Korea to study art history, and Sayuri, 7, a talented student in her own right who wants to be a cardiologist.

From early on, his mom says it was apparent that Sho was gifted. She recalls trying to master a waltz by Chopin on the piano while 3-year-old Sho played with toy trains. Frustrated, she went to the kitchen -- and a few moments later, hurried back in amazement as she heard Sho playing the piece.

By age 4, he was composing. And by age 7, he was doing high school work -- taught by his parents because they couldn't find a school that could accommodate him. By 8, he scored 1,500 out of 1,600 possible points on the SAT and started college at age 9.

The response from the public -- and some of his undergraduate classmates -- has not always been positive. Recently, Sho did an Internet search of his name and was surprised to find many people commenting about his life in blogs (Web logs).

"One person said, 'Look at this miserable child with a pushy mother,' " Sho says. "Another said, 'Look at this miracle of God with his supportive parents.' "

Sho smiles at the notion that his parents have pushed him. "Sometimes, I kind of pull them along," he says.

His mom, Kyung, says it's difficult to explain what having a child like Sho has been like. But she and her husband were always clear: "He will decide his own life, what he wants to do," she says.

They let him choose the University of Chicago even though it meant Sho's father would have to live apart from them because of his job.

His mom also lets him decide which media interviews he accepts. A few months back, he turned down a request from talk show host Oprah Winfrey. He told his mom he wants to do something "bigger" before being on TV -- such as becoming a researcher and professor.

In the end, he says, he chose medicine because he wants to help people.

"I wish I could find a big step," he says, his eyes widening slightly, "like a treatment for cancer."

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