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14-year-old prodigy pursues two University of Michigan degrees

Martin Slagter
By Mlive

Ann Arbor – Daniel Liu is used to being ahead of the curve.

He learned the alphabet by age 1 and began reading by the time he was 2. At age 10, he became the youngest person to ever win the national You Be The Chemist challenge, allowing him to meet President Barack Obama.

He even found time as a budding academic to become a viral internet meme.

“I was pretty curious, even at a young age, according to my parents,” Liu said, with a wide smile.

Fourteen-year-old Daniel Liu puts on a lab coat before working in the Sanford Lab at University of Michigan Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.

At 14, Liu now is pursuing two University of Michigan bachelor’s degrees – one in chemistry, as the youngest member of its prestigious Sanford Group, and another in computer science. He’s taking 12 credits in his first semester of college and is working on developing chemical reactions that could help pharmaceutical companies make more environmentally friendly products.

As the youngest student in all his courses, Liu said he’s used to the spectacle he creates by simply learning and conducting research, MLive reported.

“I’ve made a lot of friends,” Liu said. “Maybe at the beginning of the semester, everyone went super crazy (about me being here), but after that, everything settled down to normal. I’m just another classmate in a 200-person lecture.”

Liu has been preparing for his future academic pursuits most of his life. He accumulated around 100 credits through dual enrollment at Ottawa Hills High School in Ohio, taking classes at the University of Toledo full time by the time he was a high school junior.

He and a post-doctoral student at Toledo worked together to co-author his first academic research paper in the Journal of American Chemical Society in 2018 that focused on creating pharmaceuticals in a less expensive, more environmentally friendly way.

If it all sounds too complicated for a typical 14 year old to handle, Liu assures it didn’t all come easy to him.

“Some of it never made sense to me and I had to take a lot of time just to get that internalized,” he said.

Liu’s research paper was edited by Melanie Sanford, UM professor of chemistry and principal investigator for the Sanford Group, which conducts research out of UM’s Chemistry Building. Her lab is highly selective, with only a couple of undergraduate students admitted each year.

When she learned Liu was transferring from Toledo to UM this fall, Sanford said she informed graduate students in the lab, who were immediately excited about working with a child prodigy.

“He’s clearly smart enough to be anywhere, right? But I think that he’s integrated really well in our lab and he interacts with everybody” Sanford said. “He seems prepared to be in this environment.

“It’s not just being smart. It’s also the confidence to go and ask people questions. He’s fearless and he’s excited, but I think he’s also willing to dive into things and learn new things and that’s what you have to do to be able to really learn.”

UM has regulations restricting minors from working in its labs, but students are exempt from those regulations, allowing Liu to dive right in with his direct supervisor, Ellen Aguilera.

Conducting research with a unique individual like Liu has been a “once in a lifetime” experience, said Aguilera, who was one of several graduate students jockeying to work alongside him.

“It’s the same as the graduate students we get here, but the difference is he’s 14,” Aguilera said. “Sometimes you forget that when you’re working technically in the lab, but he’s on that level already.”

Liu’s research with Aguilera is focused on installing fluorine in Chantix, an anti-smoking drug, using techniques from previous publications.

Ultimately, they’re trying to help develop drugs that would be less expensive, generate less waste and can be given in smaller doses with fewer side effects.

While he finds time in his busy schedule to pursue hobbies like coding, and playing the cello and piano, Liu said his academic pursuits often mesh with his personal interests.

For example, Liu’s inspiration to pursue a second degree in computer science comes from his interest in coding, he said. And because he’s technically a junior at UM, he wanted to make sure he had a traditional four-year college experience - even if he is several years ahead.

Despite being significantly younger than his colleagues, Liu said he was attracted to how welcoming Michigan was.

“Michigan offered me the most opportunities and they really cared about me as a person,” he said. “With other schools, I think they kind of looked at me more as an applicant.”