12-year-old is taking on University of Chicago medical school

Monday, August 25, 2003

CHICAGO -- Sho Yano's mother hands him his lunch for school in a brown paper bag -- a turkey sandwich and cookies included.

"You don't need any bones today? No bones?" Kyung Yano asks her quiet, spectacle-wearing 12-year-old, who shakes his head "no" as they head out their apartment door. She wants to make sure he isn't supposed to take his samples of spinal bones and a human skull to class, where he's learning about human anatomy.

It's the kind of morning many young students and their parents experience -- except for one thing. Sho isn't in junior high. He's a first-year medical school student at the University of Chicago, where he's the youngest ever to attend one of the professional schools.

If he weren't also getting his Ph.D. along with his medical degree -- thus, pushing his age at graduation to 19 or 20 -- he'd also be on course to become the youngest person to graduate from any medical school. According to Guinness World Records, a 17-year-old graduated from medical school in New York in 1995.

But Sho is utterly uninterested in setting records. He also shuns the labels often used to describe him -- "prodigy" and "little genius" among them.

Yes, he has an IQ over 200. And yes, he graduated in three years from Chicago's Loyola University, summa cum laude. But for him, going to school is about learning as much as he can.

'A lot of stuff to know'

"And there's a lot of stuff to know," he says, as he thumbs through one of his extra-thick medical books.

While many kids his age have been spending their summers at camp or the beach, Sho has been dissecting a human cadaver and learning the intricacies of the 12 cranial nerves. And so far, having scored A's on his first few quizzes, he's handling the course work better than some who are a decade or more older than him.

Some of his classmates were wary at first. That included Luka Pocivavsek, a 22-year-old medical student who shared a room with his young classmate at a retreat for new students in the M.D./Ph.D. program.

At first, he thought Sho -- who often pauses to ponder questions before answering and chooses his words carefully -- was very quiet. He wondered how such a young student could handle the emotional and social rigors of being a doctor.

But Sho quickly won him over.

"He has surpassed my expectations in every imaginable way," Pocivavsek says. "His initial shyness has given way to a very sociable guy. And his understanding of complex social and political issues is very keen and observant."

In some ways, Sho is still a typical 12-year-old. He has a pet rabbit and sometimes squabbles with his little sister, Syuri. And while he's not a fan of Harry Potter, he adores books by best-selling children's author Brian Jacques.

The medical school also has adjusted Sho's schedule a bit, delaying his clinical work with patients for his last two years in the program.

In the end, Sho says he chose medicine because he wants to help people.

"I wish I could find a big step," he says, his eyes widening slightly, "like a treatment for cancer."

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