Harford teen makes his mark early

Talent: His is a graduation tale of achievements and accolades - and an interesting twist.

May 11, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Jeff Peck has two important dates coming up later this month.

Next week, he'll turn 15. Nine days later, he'll graduate from Towson. Not the high school. The university.

"Sometimes, I look at him and can't believe he'll already be graduating college," says Jeff's mother, Dolores Peck. "He's grown up so fast."

The Harford County teen-ager will become Towson University's youngest graduate, earning a degree in biology with specialties in microbiology and immunology. He's already been selected for the National Biological Honor Society, Beta Beta Beta.

"Jeff is a great kid who is extremely talented," says Carol Berkower, an assistant professor of biology at Towson. "I think his potential really isn't knowable yet. For all that he's achieved, he's still growing and maturing, and the key is keeping him on track."

And what does a kid do when he's 15 years old and already has a college degree?

For Jeff, the next step is to plunge into stem cell research in a laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine.

"It will be great to see Jeff use his talent doing some original work," says Dr. Curt I. Civin, director of the pediatric oncology division at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, who has selected Jeff to work in his lab. "I think this will be an opportunity for him to further develop his skills."

Jeff first turned heads in Maryland higher education in 1997-1998, when at age 11 he enrolled in Dundalk Community College.

After acing two semesters of classes at Dundalk - and founding the college's first Japanese animation club - he was recruited by Towson. Jeff enrolled there the next fall and received a presidential scholarship to cover his tuition.

He's earned better than a 3.7 grade-point average during his year of classes.

"I've been pleased by Jeff's progress here," says Towson's retiring president, Hoke L. Smith. "I've tried to talk to him and offer some advice. I think he's worked hard and really grown."

Jeff's parents realized from an early age that he seemed to be ahead of his peers. At age 2, he was already reading the ingredients on cereal boxes.

Before he was old enough to enter elementary school, psychologists tested Jeff and described him as "profoundly gifted," prompting his parents to hold him out of the neighborhood elementary school and teach him in their home on the edge of Rocks State Park near Jarrettsville.

Dolores Peck and her husband, Hugh, pulled together instructional materials wherever they could find them, turning to teachers and families of other gifted children for advice.

Jeff devoured everything, earning his high school degree in 1997 through the University of Nebraska's home-schooling correspondence program.

When he started his classes at Dundalk, Jeff sometimes looked more like someone's kid brother than a college student.

Now, as he's about to graduate from Towson, it's hard to pick the 14-year-old out of the college crowd, in part because he's grown a foot since 1998, to 6-foot-1.

"I think most people are surprised when they find out how old Jeff is," says Towson senior Joe Piccione, 21, one of Jeff's lab partners. "He doesn't look 14, and he doesn't act it, either."

Instead, Jeff remains pretty modest about his accomplishments, and he walks across campus with a self-assuredness that comes from having spent time giving tours to prospective Towson students.

He's also been active in various Towson student organizations during his three years, including serving as vice president of the campus Animal Behavior Club.

"When I first talked about coming to Towson, they wanted to give me one-on-one lessons for my classes," Jeff says. "But all I ever wanted was to be treated like a regular student. I think that's what happened."

Like most college students, Jeff usually does his best studying late in the night, and junk food seems to be his preferred source of energy. He admits that his pale skin comes from too much time in front of his computer set up in the family's dining room.

He's deep into intricate computer games and computer-generated designs.

Just a few weeks ago, he went with a couple of college buddies to his first concert at the Baltimore Arena, to see the group Barenaked Ladies.

But when a student enrolls in college in his early teen-age years, not everything can be regular. Rather than live on campus, Dolores Peck drives Jeff back and forth each day.

"Mom and Dad said no, not a chance, to me living in the dorms," Jeff says. Adds his mother: "He is still only 14."

During the commute before his 8 a.m. classes, Jeff usually grabs his pillow and catches another hour of sleep in the back seat of the family's 17-year-old Oldsmobile.

When Jeff arrived at Towson, he had intended to focus on marine biology, with the goal of earning a doctoral degree in the subject. But during this past year, he stumbled upon the subject of hematopoietic stem cells - the cells responsible for making blood in the body.

"I read a page about them in a textbook, and then I did a presentation on them for my biology seminar, and I realized that's what I want to study," Jeff says.

He considered applying directly to doctoral programs or joint medical degree-doctoral degree programs, but instead decided to delay that for a couple of years to start work in the research lab in September. He plans to take a night class or two, too.

"I thought it would be good for Jeff to let his age-peers catch up with him," says Civin, the Johns Hopkins director of pediatric oncology.

Yet Jeff has discovered that even working full time in a research lab has its complications.

His mother will have to keep driving him back and forth to work until at least next May, when he becomes eligible for a driver's license, and it's not clear whether he will be paid.

"Payroll at Johns Hopkins said I couldn't be paid until I'm 16," Jeff says. "But for this experience, I'd do it for free."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.