College whiz kid, 13, has scientific research published
By EVE SNEIDER, The Blade
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Most students fail the first midterm in Michael Young’s organic chemistry lecture at the University of Toledo. In spring 2017, the average was a 50. But one student, Daniel Liu, scored a 99.
“He smoked the competition,” Young said.
Daniel is now a researcher in Young’s lab. He co-authored a paper, published on May 22, that promises a faster, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly way to make pharmaceutical drugs and pesticides.
And he just turned 13-years-old.
Every year, Young has students join his lab. Daniel was interested right away. “I did a bit of background research,” he explained.
The University of Toledo’s Environmental Health and Radiation Safety department does not allow children under 12 to be in labs. But with his parents’ permission, Daniel was able to start work in Young’s lab more than a year ago, when he was still 11.
“Having Daniel has definitely been interesting,” Young said. “On the one hand, his intellect is very much like an adult, but socially he’s still a kid.”
Early on, Daniel had to be told to clean up and peppered fellow researchers with questions, which sometimes rubbed others the wrong way, Young said.
But now, “he’s like a lab mascot,” the professor said.
Daniel blends in at the lab, handling chemicals, chatting with colleagues, and operating the Rotovap, his favorite piece of lab equipment.
He wears bright blue goggles over his glasses and an extra-small lab coat he brought for himself with a Buzz Lightyear T-shirt underneath.
Sometimes he has to stand on his tiptoes to grab what he needs.
In his time in the lab, he has learned to take initiative and to clean up after himself. “He’s grown emotionally to the point where I consider that he’s almost a regular undergraduate,” Young said.
Mohit Kapoor, a postdoctoral associate in the lab, said he enjoys working with Daniel.
The two were co-authors on a recent paper. Daniel double-checked Kapoor’s writing, verified results, and did some writing of his own.
Daniel explained that he and Kapoor converted bonds into molecules during their research. “Currently the methods to make these are going to use four or five steps for the one step that we are able to use,” he said.
While they work, Kapoor said, “we talk a lot.” Daniel said that most of his friends are from high school or UT, particularly the lab.
“Daniel is always here Monday through Friday,” Young added. “He often asks, ‘Oh, can I come in on Saturday?’ and sometimes we let him.”
Daniel’s intelligence was evident as early as kindergarten, Ottawa Hills School District Superintendent Kevin Miller said. He skipped through several grades in elementary school.
After he finished fifth grade, Daniel headed straight to high school in fall 2015. This past school year, technically his junior year, he took all of his classes at UT.
“At one point Daniel pretty much tapped us out of our extensive offerings in math and science,” Miller said. “Ultimately, we work closely with UT regarding Daniel’s academic needs because they are obviously very special.”
Daniel has a 4.0 GPA at UT. He said he likes school because he gets to learn new things.
Though he no longer takes classes at Ottawa Hills High School, Daniel is still considered a high school student. He participates in Science Olympiad and Quiz Bowl. The latter team won a national championship in April.
Daniel is no stranger to national recognition. In 2015, he was the youngest-ever winner of the national You Be A Chemist challenge, a Quiz Bowl-style competition. He made it through 11 rounds of chemistry-related questions to win a $10,000 check.
The following year, a classmate in Daniel’s organic chemistry course at UT posted a photo of him online. The tweet quickly went viral, garnering Daniel articles in the Huffington Post and Teen Vogue.
Daniel and Young both attest that this did not affect their research.
Right now, Daniel is working on two of his own projects. “I gave him a goal and he is doing some of the work to actually try to obtain that goal,” Young said.
Daniel does not remember how he became interested in chemistry, but said he would like to be a researcher or professor when he grows up.
In a year, he will graduate from Ottawa Hills High School. He said he would like to go somewhere else for college but “it depends on if I get in.”