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 video games 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 home schooled 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 engineer 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.
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.