For math whiz, 16, it all adds up Prodigy: A Jarrettsville teen, about to graduate from Towson University, is wooed by powerhouse schools for their doctoral programs.

May 27, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Sixteen-year-old Loren Spice was a math whiz pursued like a kid with a killer jump shot. With promises of free tuition and generous stipends, Brown, MIT, Duke, Penn State, the University of Maryland and others aggressively courted the Jarrettsville teen-ager for their Ph.D. programs.

But it was the University of Chicago that captured him with a financial package worth $50,000 a year -- and one of 15 coveted slots in its world-renowned mathematics Ph.D. program.

"We went out of our way to give [Loren] basically what amounts to our top offer," said Arunas Liulevicius, chairman of the graduate admissions committee at the prestigious school, which chose Loren from among 300 applicants.

It was the capstone of a whirlwind undergraduate career that began when Loren entered Harford Community College at age 12 and concludes today when the straight-A math major delivers the commencement address to hundreds of fellow Towson University graduates.

"Loren is probably the most brilliant student we've ever had," said Saeed Ghahramani, chairman of the TU math department.

"We will miss him. But one day, I will read about Loren in mathematical history books."

Those who know Loren often use the word "well-rounded" when describing the personable prodigy with the higher-than-200 IQ.

"He does well interpersonally. He's not a typical nerd," said Betty Maxwell, associate director of the Gifted Development Center in Denver, who has tracked Loren's development. "Loren is somewhat of a Renaissance person."

By the time he was 2 1/2 , Loren had taught himself to read. For years, he has been writing poetry and studying the works of philosophers. His favorite is 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

When Loren accepts his diploma at Towson University, the lanky teen with the hint of a mustache will have the distinction of becoming the school's youngest graduate and student speaker.

"His age, although in the back of our minds, wasn't the factor," said M. J. McMahon, director of commencement. "When we looked at all his other achievements, you couldn't not pick him."

To support Loren, Towson University paid nearly $1,000 for his graduate-school application fees. "We prepared him for a first-rate university," Ghahramani explained. "We wanted him to make an educated decision."

Loren, who recently was honored with TU's highest math award, takes the kudos in stride.

"I don't feel terribly special," said the modest teen with an easy laugh. "The principal reason I'm here is that my parents have made sacrifices to make the opportunities available to me, and the schools took time to make education fruitful for me."

Martha Spice, 46, who attended college briefly, and Ralph Spice, 54, who has a bachelor's degree and is a manufacturing consultant, often have puzzled over how to help their son achieve his goals.

"We were like every other parent. We wanted our child to be happy," Martha Spice said. "We tried to find places for him to do that. It's been an awesome and overwhelming responsibility."

They also have a daughter, Taz, 24, and younger sons Ben, 13, and Adam, 10.

By the time Loren completed eighth grade at North Harford Middle School in Harford County, the 12-year-old -- who had zipped through high school geometry -- was bored with regular classes.

With his parents' support, he skipped high school and went to Harford Community College, where he received a two-year scholarship.

Two years ago, Loren graduated from HCC with the highest grade-point average in his class before transferring to Towson University with a full scholarship.

In his last days at Towson, Loren -- who wants to be a college math professor -- worked one-on-one with instructors who say the teen has reached master's degree level in math.

"Many students have to work on paper or the board to see what's going on," said Geoffrey Goodson, a TU math professor who combined two courses -- functional analysis and measure theory -- to challenge Loren. "He can absorb material mentally."

Martha Spice gets teary-eyed thinking about her son moving from the family's comfortable stone ranch house in the country to his own apartment on the fringes of the University of Chicago's urban campus.

"It's hard to have your 16-year-old leave," she said. "I have to remember it's an ending but also a beginning."

Towson University math professor Houshang Sohrab, who has worked closely with Loren, predicts the teen-ager will make the transition smoothly. "He's mature enough mathematically," he said. "And he's quite the extrovert."

Like many teens, Loren trades frequent e-mail messages with his friends. He is captivated by the Celtic music of Loreena McKennitt. And, as a die-hard Stanley Kubrick fan, he has watched the films "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Dr. Strangelove" over and over.

Loren said he doesn't have a chance to meet girls his age. But, for now, he's preoccupied with his first love -- math.

"My major concern is my education and when and how it happens," Loren said. "I wouldn't want to dedicate my life to academic concerns. But I don't regret the time I've spent."

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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