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posted: 9/22/2011 12:01 AM

Inverness man: It's not always easy being a genius

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  • Patrick Hurst is a profoundly gifted MIT junior who hails from Inverness. The computer science major thrives in his field but faces challenges most people don't, such as needing constant intellectual stimulation and feeling like an outsider.

      Patrick Hurst is a profoundly gifted MIT junior who hails from Inverness. The computer science major thrives in his field but faces challenges most people don't, such as needing constant intellectual stimulation and feeling like an outsider.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Patrick Hurst, a profoundly gifted MIT junior from Inverness who's majoring in computer science, wears the school ring known as a brass rat. It features a beaver, which is "nature's engineer" and the school mascot.

      Patrick Hurst, a profoundly gifted MIT junior from Inverness who's majoring in computer science, wears the school ring known as a brass rat. It features a beaver, which is "nature's engineer" and the school mascot.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Patrick Hurst is a profoundly gifted MIT junior who hails from Inverness. The computer science major thrives in his field but faces challenges most people don't such as needing constant intellectual stimulation and feeling like an outsider.

      Patrick Hurst is a profoundly gifted MIT junior who hails from Inverness. The computer science major thrives in his field but faces challenges most people don't such as needing constant intellectual stimulation and feeling like an outsider.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

 

If Patrick Hurst's mind isn't constantly stimulated, this ... is ... what ... he ... hears ... all ... day ... long.

That's how a social worker for gifted children described life for Patrick years ago, giving his parents some insight into how much quicker his brain processes, making normal things seem slower, and why he'd lose focus so easily.

It's a reality that prompted the now 20-year-old from Inverness to learn calculus on his own in sixth grade, read software manuals growing up and voluntarily teach computer science classes as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he now is a junior.

"He has to have something occupying his mind, practically at all waking hours," his mother, Nancy Hurst, said.

But being profoundly gifted -- and an off-the-charts genius -- presents a set of challenges for Patrick, be it boredom, feeling like an outsider or a resistance to structure so unyielding he spent a year at military school.

"I can be stubborn and I don't like doing things that I don't want to do," Patrick said. "It's still kind of a problem I have, but I'm getting better at it."

Parents Patrick and Nancy first noticed their son, an Illinois Math and Science Academy graduate who in 2009 was one of 20 people in the nation selected for the U.S. Physics Team, exhibited signs of extraordinary intelligence at about age 1.

Patrick would scan through car magazines as he sat in his high chair, and then identify different makes and models when the family was out. To make sure the toddler simply hadn't memorized the words in a Dr. Seuss book, Nancy would skip a page and see he was indeed reading. And Patrick would recite restaurant menus, much to waitresses' amazement.

Teachers at Windsor Elementary School in Arlington Heights didn't know how to handle Patrick, finding inadequate ways to challenge the first-grader such as sending him to the library to work on an independent project on rocks and minerals.

They recommended the Hursts look at Quest Academy, a private school in Palatine that enrolls nearly 300 gifted students from about 50 communities.

When Patrick, then 6 or 7, took an IQ test as an admission requirement, he scored better than 200, a number so rare his intelligence is considered unmeasurable.

The Hursts doubt the validity of that test, but to put his score -- inflated or not -- into perspective, only 0.1 percent of people in the world have an IQ of at least 145, according to the widely used Wechsler scale. And Albert Einstein was said to have had an IQ of about 160.

Patrick never bothered taking another test because the result was clear: He was profoundly gifted and had very different needs than normal kids.

"Sometimes children intellectually can be way, way ahead but emotionally are right there where they're supposed to be," Quest Academy Head of School Ben Hebebrand said. "There's an asynchronicity in development."

Patrick quickly built an impressive resume, completing eighth-grade math curriculum as a second-grader and getting first-place scores on Midwest Academic Talent Search tests through Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development. In eighth grade, he took Advanced Placement physics and economics online and scored a 1490 out of 1600 on the SAT.

While academic achievement clearly wasn't a problem, other aspects of his life were.

Patrick operates at such a high level -- when he reads, for instance, his brain bypasses "filler" words so that he processes a sentence in a fraction of the time -- that focusing was a significant problem. He was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and, despite being surrounded by gifted students, felt like an outsider.

"I didn't really socialize as much as I should have," Patrick said. "I felt like people couldn't keep up and I was just bored in general."

When it came time for high school, Patrick opted to attend IMSA. The selective math and science boarding school accepted him right out of eighth grade, a year earlier than most students.

Though he was doing fine academically, he struggled with organization, getting to class on time and generally being on his own. Patrick left and finished the year at St. John's Northwestern Military Academy in Wisconsin.

"He just wasn't ready for that independent lifestyle," Nancy said. "He learned some things about himself he wouldn't have had he stayed in such a liberal, unstructured environment."

Patrick returned to IMSA as a sophomore and later got accepted to MIT, where he's majoring in computer science.

In addition to teaching classes on the Haskell computer programming language and the Linux operating system, he's one of the key researchers on a sensory network data project at the elite Boston-area school.

DoppelLab, as it's known, measures a building's real-time humidity, temperature, noise, motion and other characteristics, and then creates a 3-D "cross-reality virtual environment" that presents the data in a format resembling a video game.

For the first time in his life, Patrick doesn't feel freakishly different from his peers. He remains somewhat introverted, prefers to interact with people online and lets his sense of humor come through when he relaxes.

And it's not uncommon for him to change course mid-sentence because another light bulb goes on, one of the latest examples being his theory on the relationship between rhetoric and extremists.

Patrick isn't yet sure what kind of career he wants, only that it be in the computer science field. He decided that was his passion and has let his knack for physics, math and even linguistics play an active but less prominent role in his life.

He does worry that given just how rare his gift is, he won't make the most of it.

"Sometimes I'm worried that I won't live up to my potential," Patrick said.

• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to standouts@dailyherald.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.

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