06/13/2011 07:00:00

Precocious PhD

On June 10, Catherine Elizabeth Beni graduated as the youngest woman to ever receive a PhD from Caltech, the youngest person to be bestowed her actual diploma—and locked in a virtual dead heat for the "precociousness title" with physicist and Caltech grad Stephen Wolfram, developer of the Mathematica software program.

Back in November 1979, Wolfram defended his PhD thesis at the tender age of 20 years, 2 months, and 7 days. Beni's age when she defended her thesis? Twenty years, 2 months, and 12 days.

"My 30-year record for youngest Caltech PhD is preserved, by less than a week," boasted Wolfram in a blog entry ("A Precociousness Record (Almost) Broken").

Or is it? "To be honest," Beni says, "I don't feel as if I have lost the "precociousness" title, since so many external factors are involved with the PhD process (and education in general)." In a comment to Wolfram's original blog post, Beni—who received her degree in applied and computational mathematics—made her own mathematical case:

"… choosing the defense date as a benchmark also includes factors independent of the precociousness, such as the availability of the committee to meet. As is well known, committee members have busy schedules and the date of one's defense depends on such factors that are beyond student control. Thus, I would estimate that an error of +/- seven days should be added to the number of days when comparing the exact numbers, making our precociousness identical within a margin of error."

Before their bloggy banter, Wolfram and Beni were well acquainted, having met when Beni was just 12 years old, prior to her arrival at Caltech at 14 (she graduated from high school at 11 years old—on the same day that she received an associate's degree from a community college). "We collaborated on a project related to cellular automata and partial differential equations for a few months," she says. "I did know about his record at Caltech, and we had discussed my chances of beating it on a few occasions. He actually asked if I could keep in contact with him and let him know my progress at Caltech."

The two are thinking of starting what Wolfram calls a "curious little club" for precocious, or "low-age" PhDs—with a cut-off age of 21. The club, Beni wrote, "would not be as a monument to ourselves, or for self-aggrandizement, but rather as the start of a supportive group of sorts to encourage, inspire, and reassure young people that precociousness can be extremely positive (and not dangerous to one's psyche, as many people think)." One likely member is her own sister, Juliet, who will graduate next year with a PhD from UC Riverside at the age of 19.

Beni, whose PhD thesis focused on developing efficient and accurate numerical algorithms for medically applicable models involving the reconstruction of images from positron emission tomography scanners and magnetic drug delivery, next heads to the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. She will take a postdoctoral research position with a group focused on engineering heart valves grown from a patient's own tissue. "In working on my thesis, I realized that I am very interested in the medical applications of the models my thesis is based on," she says. "I think that the intersection between medicine and applied mathematics is a new and exciting field that needs to be developed."

Written by Kathy Svitil