Suwanee honors 15-year-old graduate with his own day

SUWANEE - Anyone in Suwanee who hasn't heard Joe Fang's name will surely know it now. Monday is Joe Fang Day in Suwanee, and those words are already written in big, bold print across the marquee in front of City Hall on Ga. Highway 23.

Fang should be accustomed to the attention. At age 15, the child prodigy and North Gwinnett High School senior has a lifelong history of academic achievements.

Fang will enter the California Institute of Technology this fall to major in biomedical engineering. He was also accepted at both Georgia Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institutes of Technology.

"I knew I wanted to do something in science, and biology has a really good future," Fang said. "Many colleges are doing biological research. Like civics - we know the laws. Chemistry, the same thing. But scientists are discovering more about DNA and making advances in human gene projects."

Even having scored a perfect 1,600 on the SAT last year didn't secure Fang a slot in the highly competitive engineering schools. Cal Tech received 3,320 applications this year and admitted only 500 freshmen. M.I.T. was even more selective. It received 10,443 applications and accepted only 1,495 new students.

Jun Zao recognized her son's brilliance when he was a toddler.

"At age 2, he could count backward from 100 to one," she said. "That's when I knew."

An electrical engineer, Zao began teaching her baby son the basics of mathematics. The lessons evolved into algebra, geometry and calculus before Fang entered first grade at age 4. His FOCUS teacher, Susan Brannon, realized Fang had a special talent the first day of class.

"He came in with this notebook and said, 'I need to go to high school for math,'" Brannon said. "I looked at the notebook and it was full of calculus and geometry and algebra. It was unbelievable. His mom had shown him some things and he just picked it up. He was a true prodigy."

Skipping classes

Brannon arranged for a high school senior to tutor Fang in math. In second grade, he made a daily trip to Lanier Middle School for Algebra I class. Two years later, in fourth grade at age 7, Fang was commuting to North Gwinnett High School for Susan Pinion's Gifted Algebra II class.

"He had completed Algebra I and Geometry classes before he arrived in my Gifted Algebra II class, so his exceptionality had already been identified," Pinion said. "I was petrified. I had serious doubts as to his ability to function in a classroom with students who were so much older, but bigger doubts about my ability to nurture a small child in that setting."

While Pinion guided Fang and her high school students through advanced algebraic concepts, she learned about the intricacies of teaching a brilliant 7-year-old.

"Joe surpassed any expectations I could have," Pinion said. "His papers were perfect. His homework was perfect. But, he was still a fourth-grader, and I had to get a student to accompany him to the restroom. Now we laugh about those days."

Pinion, Fang and his high school classmates adapted to one another. Two years later, in Pinion's Advanced Placement Calculus, Fang became the class tutor at age 9. As Fang prepares to leave for Cal Tech, the shy teenager calls the formerly uncertain Pinion his mentor.

"I have had her three years for math, so we developed a good relationship," Fang said. "She makes sure everyone understands. If you don't get it, she will give you personal help. She watched me grow up, and she cares about me and my future."

On his application essay for college, Fang wrote about his experiences being in advanced classes when he was so young. He skipped both eighth and 10th grades because he had already completed the required classes.

"They treated me differently because I was half their size," Fang said. "I got teased a bit, but they accepted me and were nice to me. I was a really smart kid, but I didn't understand the stuff teenagers talked about."

Fang was insulated from mature conversations at his tender age because of his class schedule.

"He didn't socialize with them because he was only in a classroom environment," Brannon said. "He went to math class, then returned to his regular school."

Parental guidance

Brannon said Fang grew up to be a well-rounded student because his parents, Al Fang and Jun Zao, exposed him to a variety of subjects and experiences. For two years in a row, the former Boy Scout earned a perfect score on the National Latin Exam. He also placed first in the Greater Atlanta Math Exam and is a member of the National Honor Society in Science.

Fang is first chair alto saxophone in North Gwinnett's jazz and marching band. His mother, a violin player, taught Fang the basics of notes and rhythms on the piano when he was 4.

"Math and music are related like two sides," Fang said. "The artistic side is the creative side, but the rhythms are technical. If you are good at math, you tend to be good at music, too."

Both of Fang's parents are electrical engineers who came from China to pursue advanced degrees. Fang was born in Beijing and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents at age 2. He speaks fluent Chinese, which is spoken exclusively at home. His mother holds a master's degree and his father earned a PhD.

After graduating from college at age 19, Fang, too, plans to pursue a master's degree, then a PhD. He will be in his mid-20s when he earns the title "Dr. Fang."

Although Zao is proud of her son and happy that he will get to study at Cal Tech, she still wishes he would attend Georgia Tech and remain close to home.

"He is only 15 and will go to the other side of the country," Zao said. "Deep in my heart I wish he would stay and get his undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech, then go wherever he wants for graduate school. But he is very confident and so I think we are OK and we support him. There is no HOPE Scholarship for Cal Tech. The total tuition is $45,000 for one year."

Fang received a one-time $2,000 Siemens Award for Advanced Placement.

It won't be Fang's first experience away from home. Last summer, Fang studied for six weeks at Valdosta State College. He will spend this summer visiting relatives in China, like he did in 2001 and 2003.

Suwanee Mayor Pro Tem Jeannie Rispin said there is no telling where Fang's future will lead.

"When I was standing there with him I thought to myself, 'Who knows where he will be in five or 10 years?'" Rispin said. "His future is unlimited, and he has the potential to change our world for the better."