Evan M. O’Dorney ’15 scribbles on a white board in a cramped Canaday single strewn with laundry and empty peanut butter jars. His face lights up as he demonstrates how to identify patterns using colorful, maze-like diagrams that he has constructed.
He smiles quietly and squints his eyes in intense concentration. Lost in thought, he falls silent as he ponders the complex shapes.
“I might be able to get it published in some little magazine,” O’Dorney says offhandedly as he perches on the edge of his unmade bed.
Publishing might be a small feat for O’Dorney, who had won both the Intel Science Competition and the National Spelling Bee before he matriculated at Harvard this past fall.
At Harvard, O’Dorney has taken the math department by storm. He is one of the few freshmen ever to place out of Math 55—the most advanced undergraduate math course offered—directly into graduate mathematics classes in his first semester.
Though something of a celebrity within the freshman class, O’Dorney modestly discusses his achievements with unstudied nonchalance.
O’Dorney has little patience for small talk, but he is ever eager to discuss his two primary passions—music and math.
TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL
When O’Dorney began to do addition at the age of two, his parents quickly recognized his extraordinary intellectual capacity.
“He soaked up things so quickly,” says his mother, Jennifer J. O’Dorney. “The more I taught him the more he wanted to learn.”
By the time O’Dorney was old enough to attend school, his parents decided to homeschool him. “He would have been bored to tears in kindergarten,” his mother said.
O’Dorney’s mother devoted most of her time to her son’s education while he was growing up. His father once worked as a computer programmer but today drives a subway train in San Francisco.
O’Dorney largely taught himself out of textbooks, but his mother worked with him on government and economics.
As O’Dorney reached high school age, his parents began to structure his time with deadlines and assignments.
He attended math classes at the University of California, Berkeley and literature classes with other homeschooled students.
BEATING THE BEE
At age 14, O’Dorney won the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee after days of grueling competition.
With the help of his mother, O’Dorney had studied the dictionary for two years before the Bee. He analyzed spelling patterns from French and German and compiled notebooks filled with difficult words. O’Dorney’s highly accurate photographic memory helped him build his tremendous vocabulary.
O’Dorney says he entered the Bee believing that he had a good chance of winning. He remained stoic and calm throughout the famously stressful competition, teaching himself to juggle to drown out distractions from reporters and the audience.
Today, O’Dorney juggles in his free time and seems to be as proud of his Spelling Bee win as he is of his ability to keep four balls in the air—if only for 30 seconds.
But after devoting so much time to mastering orthography, O’Dorney finds rote memorization tiresome and dislikes the garbled logic of the “awkward” English language.
“I was a lot less mature then,” O’Dorney says.
Nevertheless, O’Dorney is proud of his complex and colorful vocabulary, likening proper spelling to the ability to speak foreign languages.
“For Evan, words have very precise definitions,” says Nicholas R. Nardini, O’Dorney’s proctor in Canaday. “It’s always a challenge to match his verbal precision.”
O’Dorney even offered to spell-check this article before it went to print.
Though O’Dorney has demonstrated a phenomenal capacity for memorization, he says his true passion lies in mathematics.
Last year, O’Dorney won the Intel Science competition—a prestigious national contest—for his simple formula to approximate square roots.
A Stanford professor presented a mathematical dilemma to O’Dorney after attempts to solve the problem with a team of graduate students had failed.
O’Dorney devoted the summer after ninth grade to tackling the problem, and within two weeks, he had found a solution. Two months later, he had ironed out the details to streamline the proof into the cleaner and simpler formula that would eventually win the science competition.
O’Dorney had painstakingly entered data into a computer program during countless trials. He played with numbers to find creative input material that would generate numerical patterns.
“He’s much faster than I am,” says Joseph D. Harris, O’Dorney’s academic advisor.
Last spring, Harris’s colleagues at Stanford and UC Berkeley had told him to look out for “this amazing kid.” Curious, Harris traveled to a math conference where O’Dorney was a participant, and he says he was stunned by O’Dorney’s exceptional ability.
O’Dorney contemplates one day working on number theory—the “most concentrated” form of math, he says. He is uninterested in the potential applications of his work, preferring instead to puzzle over pure math and number theory’s simple equations.
O’Dorney says that he hopes to be a math professor one day.
“He has such a gift for teaching,” his mother says, as she recounts how her son patiently teaches her about the problems he is working on.
FINDING A HOME AT HARVARD
Like all college freshmen, O’Dorney has encountered challenges as he adjusts to college life.
Though he excels in math, he says that he finds written work difficult. He may be an excellent speller, but he struggles to construct essays with structured and focused arguments.
He will take the mandatory Expository Writing 20 this semester, a course he considers an “annoying task.”
O’Dorney joined the Glee Club last semester and spends his free time composing music. Shortly before Christmas, Harvard freshmen witnessed O’Dorney composing a complex musical score on a white board in the back of Annenberg during breakfast. O’Dorney says that he constantly has music in his head that he needs to get down on paper.
He describes the popular music played in Annenberg as “pretty dull.”
Enrolled in two high-level math courses last semester, O’Dorney found that he had little time for socializing with his peers. But his social experience at Harvard, he says, is not important to him.
“He seems blithely untroubled by the same social anxieties that plague the average freshman,” Nardini says.
O’Dorney says he has found a community in the math department. He says that he appreciates the department’s intimate feel and the individual guidance that he receives.
The feeling is mutual. Harris says that admissions recruiters actively seek out talented math students, and that the department is lucky to have O’Dorney as a student.
“He’s content and he’s challenged,” says his mother, adding that O’Dorney has told her that he feels at home among his professors.
“I love Harvard,” O’Dorney says.
—Staff writer Laura K. Reston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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