In his office at the American University of Beirut, mathematics department chairman Wissam Raji scribbled away on a sheet of paper as he directed a series of questions and explanations about the limits of sequences to a student hovering next to him.
The student, Sinar Zaito, is a bit different from the rest of Raji’s pupils: He is 11 years old.
Under Raji’s tutelage, the bespectacled sixth-grader is already learning analysis concepts generally taught to advanced second-year mathematics university students.
This month, Zaito became the youngest-ever recipient of the Templeton-Ramanujan Fellowship, which honors the legacy of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. The award provides up to $5,000 to support research and development activities of emerging engineers, mathematicians and scientists around the world.
Zaito’s interest in science seems natural. His father is a high school physics teacher, and his mother is a mechanical engineer.
But Zaito’s mother, Yasmine Mroueh, says that although her son was always an intelligent child with “lots of questions and curiosity that sometimes drives you crazy,” as well as an interest, like most children, in dinosaurs and outer space, it wasn’t until this past year that his unusual mathematical aptitude surfaced.
“In school, no one noticed that he had something extra,” she said. “He was a good student with excellent grades, but that’s it.”
Last year, after teaching himself animation, Zaito began making short YouTube videos explaining scientific concepts such as the Fermi paradox, black holes and how cells fight viruses.
But it was his fascination with a classic puzzle that led to the sudden blossoming of his math skills.
“I used to love solving Rubik’s Cubes, and there are many numbers in Rubik’s Cubes - combinations and permutations of solving, how many ways you can scramble a three-by-three [cube] or more,” Zaito told The Daily Star.
“And I wanted to learn how you can find an equation for anything - how much can you scramble anything? I learned about combinations and permutations and factorials, and then I started learning more, because the functions you can use in one equation can be used in many more.”
He also delved into algorithms and advanced mathematical concepts on the internet, and his father began giving him materials he used with his high school physics students. Within months, Zaito was doing math at a 12th-grade level.
“At the beginning of the school year, I noticed that he was very bored,” Mroueh said. “I thought, ‘What the heck? This boy has almost finished the curriculum for Grade 12 - and he has to go back and learn about multiplication and decimals? It’s just so unfair.’”
Searching for a way for her son to continue his progress, she emailed the math department at AUB in September. Within days, Raji replied, and after meeting with the family and assessing Zaito’s skills, he agreed to allow the boy to attend math classes at the university.
Initially, Raji said, he planned to have Zaito attend his calculus class for first-year students, but he thought better of it, feeling that a large lecture hall full of 19- and 20-year-olds might not be a suitable setting for an 11-year-old. Instead, he began giving Zaito one-on-one lessons.
“I’m working now with him on what we call introduction to analysis, which is what advanced second-year students take in math, and he’s doing very well,” Raji said.
Raji also helped Zaito apply for the Templeton-Ramanujan Fellowship. The funds will go toward supporting his work at AUB, as well as give him access to online Art of Problem Solving courses and $1,000 worth of math and science texts. Next term, Raji said, Zaito will enroll in linear algebra and advanced analysis classes at the university.
The boy said that had he not had the chance to study at AUB, he might not have pushed forward with mathematics.
“I think if I never came here, I would have stopped my interest in math, because I wouldn’t have learned a lot of other subjects in math,” he said.
“I only was learning calculus and complex numbers.”
Raji believes that by the time Zaito is 14 or 15, he will be ready to pursue a doctorate in the United States, if he chooses.
“I think yes, he is a genius,” the professor said. “This is a blessing and a curse. That’s what we always try to tell him, myself and other colleagues here in the department.”
Raji said he encourages Zaito to pursue interests besides math.
“You cannot now, at this age, just focus all your effort” on one thing, he said. “Of course, if you focus your effort just on math, you could go next year for a PhD ... But you cannot rush time - you have to take it easy, that’s No. 1, and you have to learn other things. Family is important, emotions are important, emotional growth is important, other subjects ... All of these are important to make you well-rounded.”
Zaito said that apart from math, he has been focused on learning Japanese, and he hopes to be able to go abroad to continue his math studies in a few years.
Mroueh said she and his father will support him in whatever path he chooses.
“If there is nothing suitable for him in Lebanon, he has to do it somewhere else,” she said. “This is the plan, if he’s still interested. I’m not the type of mother who’s going to tell him, ‘You have to do this.’ ... It’s his passion. So the moment he tells me, ‘I’m not interested anymore,’ this is the moment he’s going to quit. If he’s still interested in a couple of years, if he tells me, ‘I want to go and continue somewhere else,’ that’s what he will do.”
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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