Feature

Outside the Bell Curve
At 16, he was Mines' youngest-ever graduate. Then what?

Winds howled through Boulder as winter break wound to a close. Neighborhood teenagers were steeling themselves to head back to high school in a few days. And by any typical account, Dylan Jones might have been heading right along with them into a spring semester filled with senior-year trepidation.

But Dylan is not your average 17-year-old. He was not fretting about AP exams or prom. In the dwindling days of vacation he was keeping an anxious eye on the driveway in front of his parents’ modest ranch-style home, awaiting the arrival of a UPS truck. The delivery would bear 40 pounds of books – everything he needed to start his second semester at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.

Dylan graduated from Mines in 2007 with a degree in math and computer science and a minor in bioengineering and life sciences (BELS). He was 16 at the time—the youngest graduate in Mines history. A recipient of a President’s Merit Scholarship, he graduated with high honors. Fellow alumni may recall him as the curious pint-sized scholar who first plunked down in their chemistry or calculus classes when he was only 10. At the time, his dad, Earl, was shuttling him around campus and helping take notes while his son’s handwriting skills caught up with the pace of his voracious mind. Since then, Dylan has grown into a tall lanky math whiz and settled in to his unconventional academic trajectory with aplomb.

Medical school doesn’t seem to be fazing him any more than Mines did. Describing the moment when he first saw the cadaver he would dissect for his first semester gross anatomy course, Dylan vividly recalls his anticipation. “I was excited,” he said. He’s since spent 12 hours in neurosurgery. The first-year med student’s reaction: “Psyched!”

Dylan is unassuming and gracious, and it’s easy to forget he’s only 17 as he expresses soft-spoken excitement about his preceptorship with an internist at Boulder Medical Center. He’s keen on the opportunity to assist with rounds that include everything from elderly care to the arrival of newborn babies. Taking into account a seven-year residency, Dylan plans to be a board certified neurosurgeon by the time he’s 28.

But that’s unlikely to be the end of academia for him. “I want to go back to math again. I want to be in a place where I can do neurosurgery half the day and lecture on math the other half of the day. I don’t ever want to stop learning,” Dylan says. He envisions himself teaching: “Math. Astrophysics. That sounds fun,” he says, reflecting the sensibilities of a smart kid who sees a world of limitless possibilities. Back when he was 10, he told a reporter that he envisioned himself being a “concert pianist, neurosurgeon, NASA engineer, game programmer, mathematician or inventor.”

Dylan’s parents, Shari and Earl, realized early that their son was unusually bright. He started spontaneously reading street signs at age 2—then quickly moved forward with bigger and better words. His mom fondly remembers him crawling up to a computer to play a keyboard game where a man in a diving bell had to extract things from a treasure chest. Like any average teenager under the admiring gaze of his mother, Dylan cringes under Shari’s pride in her son’s early inquisitiveness.

By first grade, Dylan’s teacher was urging Shari and Earl to have their son tested. Even with special lessons and a computer set up in the corner of his second grade classroom, Dylan was bored. “They tried,” Earl says. “But it was impossible.”

The Joneses turned to some of the world’s top experts at the Davidson Institute, which assists profoundly gifted kids. The institute offers a safety net for extremely smart kids who fall through the cracks in traditional learning environments. At 7, Dylan was operating across the board at high school levels in achievement tests, and he became one of the first Davidson Young Scholars. In this group, Dylan discovered a community of other kids in similarly perplexing academic limbo. Call it underage networking: Dylan befriended fellow scholars who became 19-year-old professors and pre-drinking-age PhDs.

Earl and Shari committed themselves to whatever they’d need to do to nurture Dylan’s natural abilities—even when it meant uprooting their lives in San Diego. “We quit our jobs and sold our house, left family behind,” says Shari, recalling the move that brought the Jones family to Boulder.

Dylan quit traditional school during Christmas break of the second grade. The 7-year-old and his dad packed their car with clothes and computers and relocated close to the Rocky Mountain School, a pre-K through eighth grade school designed for gifted children. Shari stayed behind for the first six months, flying out to Colorado for weekend visits. Shari and Earl were both computer programmers at the time, but Earl soon quit working to take on full-time dad duties.

“The psychologists told us there was no way Dylan was going to have any kind of traditional educational path. We just tried to accommodate him as best we could. We listened to Dylan a lot,” Shari says. Experts advised Earl and Shari that their job was to run interference, knock down any walls, and get people out of his way so their son could learn.

It turned out that not even an elementary school for gifted students would be enough. The curriculum was designed to teach advanced material early on, but Dylan quickly outgrew it. He started taking classes concurrently at Fairview High School in Boulder—but those were too easy as well. So, at 10, he found himself at Mines, desperate for a challenge, not necessarily a degree.

“I just wanted to learn at that point,” says Dylan, who benefited from Mines’ flexibility in allowing him to take a broad range of subjects, sometimes out of sequence. He never earned his high school diploma (Shari had to sign official papers for him to drop out of high school when he was nine.); nor did he precisely go through Mines’ standard application process. He started off by just taking a few math and chemistry classes.

Although the Jones family lives practically across the street from the University of Colorado Boulder, they saw many advantages in venturing down the road to Golden. Dylan appreciated Mines’ environment and its smaller, more intimate size. “It was really nice. I enjoyed every class I took, whether it was math or liberal arts,” he says, predicting that his breadth of coursework at Mines will benefit him in a wide range of pursuits throughout his life. Above all, Dylan says he reveled in the small class sizes and direct access to professors. He spent a total of five years at Mines, plus a sixth year at CU doing his biology labs before the BELS program offered them at Mines. He kept accumulating lots of diverse credits until one day they realized that he could readily polish off a math degree.

“I think kids should get placed wherever they need to be academically,” Dylan says. “I thought Mines was very good about the whole no-barriers thing. They let me take classes, move ahead, and they matriculated me. It was just a great relationship with them.”

Among the highlights was his connection with Willy Hereman, a professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences and Dylan’s advisor. “It’s kind of a challenge to deal with [a student] that gifted,” Hereman says. The professor figures most students realized that Dylan was probably smarter than they were and essentially put their young classmate on a pedestal. But Hereman found ample opportunities to challenge Dylan with analytical problems in linear algebra and a summer research project. “I had a good time with him. I found him fascinating. He has a very good sense of humor.”

Hereman recalls a day when Dylan came to his office to let him know that he had memorized the first 500 digits of pi. The professor pulled the number up on his computer screen to fact check and Dylan proceeded to recite about the first 300 digits without a hitch. So Hereman challenged him with another number, e, the basis of the exponential, 2.71828…, curious if Dylan might get the sequences confused. “Why would I get them confused?” Dylan asked, “They are two different numbers.” Hereman remembers Dylan returning disappointed two days later: he had only perfected the first 100 digits.

At Mines, Hereman watched the evolution of Dylan’s analytical mind. One summer while working on a water waves model, Hereman instructed Dylan and his fellow students that if they were going to do research, they’d have to “look outside the box, be creative, think differently.” About six months later, Dylan was in Hereman’s linear algebra class and came to the professor’s office to verify his answer to a problem. “He was usually right. But this one was completely wrong…he really messed this one up,” Hereman says, then laughs heartily as he remembers Dylan’s witty response: “Maybe I was thinking outside the box.”

“We’ve had a lot of luck and dealt with a lot of extremely reasonable adults who were open-minded,” says Earl, alluding to the Mines faculty and other progressive educators who helped his son move at his own pace through the conventional educational system. For the Joneses, Mines was a turning point. Giving Dylan the opportunity to go there, “That was key,” Earl says.

Dylan doubts he missed out on much of the average kid stuff along the way. “Getting beat up in the locker room every day?” he says with a sly smirk. “Not really.” Like a lot of college students these days, he took a year off after graduation to consider his options. After filling out about 20 medical school applications, he traveled to France, caught up on some of the sci fi reading he enjoys, and, as a film buff, found time to watch a lot of films.

“I want to learn Russian, but I don’t really have time for it right now,” says Dylan, who has studied Latin, French, Spanish, and German. “I want to study it because Cyrillic is a different set of characters. I want that extra challenge.”

Outside his academic life, Dylan’s world is like many others. His mom chuckles about his typical teenage habits. He adores his dog. His bedroom is plastered with movie posters. He’s big on playing video games until the wee hours of the morning and loves listening to music—from The Beatles to “some crazy DJ in the Netherlands whose name I don’t even know,” says Shari. He wants to visit Sweden because he’s made lots of friends there over the internet. He once professed his passion for rollerblading, and like any Colorado kid has occasionally held some interest in riding the mountain slopes, although lately his interests lean more toward the cerebral.

“I think he has the two characteristics that a genius needs: smart and fast,” Hereman says. Dylan can take a complex problem that might take others an entire day to solve and finish it in a fraction of the time. And so it seems apropos that Dylan once confided in his mentor that anything having to do with how the brain functioned intrigued him.

Dylan realizes he’s gotten a lot of attention being the young guy, but he’s modest, and he’s used to it. In class at Mines, students would sometimes question whether he was the young kid they’d heard about. “After that, they’d say ‘Oh, that’s so cool’ and get on with it,” Dylan says. “It’s never been a bad thing. It’s a conversation starter though.”

And how did he fare in his first semester in medical school? With characteristic humility, the family is slow to respond, but Earl and Shari can’t quite hide the pride they feel for their son. “Very well,” Dylan finally admits, “very well.” And then, a moment later, he jokes that he can’t get a job at McDonald’s because he lacks a high school diploma.

Perhaps he’ll take care of that after he’s certified in neurosurgery, Earl teases.