Madhusudan Madhavan, 16, doesn’t yet have a driver’s license in North Carolina, but he has an undergraduate degree in applied math with a minor in physics from NC State.
Teenager Cary graduated this spring with a 4.0 GPA in just six semesters, plus a handful of classes in multiple summer sessions. After his birthday, he focused on final exams, commencement exercises, and a graduation trip to see his family in southern India. He postponed a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles for his driving test.
This rite of passage – skipped by three-quarters of all Gen Zers like Madhavan – is about the only test he hasn’t passed on his rapid march to adulthood.
A passion for learning
“I’ve always had a passion for learning and always enjoyed exploring new things,” says Madhavan. “Since I was a child, I was very curious and loved to learn.”
He started reading at the age of 2 and had mastered mathematical functions such as calculating means, medians and modes, as well as advanced multiplication before kindergarten. He outstripped other students in his classes at Wake County Public Schools and spent a brief period of his preteen years preparing for undergraduate classes while being homeschooled.
At the age of 13, he was ready to enroll in the College of Science, soon after his older sister, Aishwarya, started her course in the business administration program at Poole College of Management. Aishwarya often dropped off Madhusudan near SAS Hall for her classes during her first semester – until the global COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person classes for most students for about 18 months.
Madhavan graduated about three weeks after his 16th birthday.
“To be honest, I knew he was young,” says assistant professor of applied mathematics Alen Alexanderian, one of Madhavan’s mentors. “I didn’t know he was that young.”
Alina Duca, director of undergraduate programs and teaching professor of math, first met him at an “Experience NC State” recruiting event for high-achieving admitted students and their families. He was with his father and sister, and Duca at first believed the younger brother was following. She soon realized that Madhusudan was where she needed to log on before starting classes in fall 2019.
For Madhavan, the son of a first-generation immigrant working in information technology and a housewife, studying math is more than multiplication tables, word problems and standardized tests.
“I’ve always had a passion to see the beauty of mathematics and its applications,” he says. “That’s what brought me here to NC State.”
Young graduates are now rare
Young students pursuing a degree at the largest school in the University of North Carolina system aren’t exactly unheard of. In fact, when it opened in 1889, county scholars were between the ages of 14 and 15 and attended the North Carolina College for Agriculture and Mechanic Arts as a preparatory school to prepare them for post-secondary courses, a time when public schools in the state were not standardized. Devoted patron David Clark earned three engineering degrees from NC State and another from Cornell between 1894 and 1998 before enlisting to serve in the Spanish–American War at age 21.
However, since State College became North Carolina State University in 1965, such young graduates have been rare, although complete records of age at graduation are not available.
Records from the university’s registrar’s office show Madhavan is the first 16-year-old to graduate since Thomas York of Walkertown, North Carolina graduated in 2010. Raleigh native Stephen Conley, who enrolled in mathematics, earned his undergraduate degree in computer science at age 16 in the spring of 1998, something rare enough for him to appear in the New York Timesthe Associated Press and statewide newspapers.
Last spring, 18-year-old Samantha Kiser from Georgia graduated with a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. She spent two years at Wake Technical Community College before enrolling at NC State and would be the university’s youngest graduate.
Madhavan is modest about his achievements as a young scholar.
“Most of my teachers and even my friends at NC State didn’t know my age,” Madhavan says. “So because of that, I didn’t feel any separation or difficulty adjusting with the different communities in NC State.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any specific challenges or issues I had as a student.”
For the most part, however, it is difficult to quantify how young Madhavan is compared to the rest of the university community.
Ready for College
He was born in April 2006, a few months after the billionth song was uploaded to iTunes (“Speed of Sound” by Coldplay) and Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union. Barely a dozen years later, he had no doubt that he was ready for college classes.
“I saw that I already had the same background as any other student applying to NC State,” he says. “I had taken algebra, calculus, all of those classes. So I thought, given that background, why not try college, especially since NC State is such a wonderful university here in my town.
“I felt it was the right decision for me.”
Although young, Madhavan was successful at NC State because he was a mature student, Duca says.
“Madhusudan was just serious in everything he did,” she says. “Even though the material was really easy for him, he was always there to answer and ask questions.
“He wanted to do everything very well, but he was also quite balanced and mature in his approach.”
He not only filled his days with undergraduate and graduate coursework, but he also devoted time to the same pursuits as most top-performing university students. He is a member of several NC State student organizations, including the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Society of Undergraduate Mathematics, Society for Multicultural Scientists, Society of Physics Students, Mathematics Insights Club, AI Club, and Quantum Information Club. He has also participated in the University Honors Program, the Mathematics Honors Program, and the Phi Beta Kappa National Honors Society.
“I think that’s about it,” he said. “I always felt completely at home in college.”
Apart from being a perfect A to A-plus student, Madhavan has also completed two semester-long research projects, one on a mathematical approach to COVID modeling and the other on the Zermelo navigation problem. , in which he not only presented a solution for the 90s-old optimal control problem, but also wrote a detailed history of its use in mathematical optimization.
“I was able to use theoretical math in a real environment to solve real problems,” he says.
Yet it was his handling of these problems and the effort he put into them that stood out to his advisers.
“Of undergraduates who choose to do a research project, most do just one, regardless of age,” says Alexanderian. “Madhusudan has completed two. What impressed me the most was that he took the time to write about the history of his subjects, which hardly anyone does.
For his efforts as an undergraduate student, Madhavan received the Outstanding Scholarship Senior Award from the Department of Mathematics, received the Gordon Family Scholarship for Academic Merit, and completed the College of Sciences Honors Program . Both projects were fully funded by the National Science Foundation
So what does a 16-year-old with a college degree and a special talent for math do next?
Madhavan was accepted into a Ph.D. from NC State. applied mathematics program and will begin classes this fall.
“I’m ready to see where life takes me,” he says.
Maybe even the DMV.