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magazine home > archives > spring 2002 > features

U of M sophomore Alex Brueggeman, the youngest-ever winner of the Goldwater Award, has a genuine character and down-to-earth personality that are changing the ways in which people look at gifted children.

Real Genius
by Benjamin Potter

It’s a story almost worthy of Hollywood.

In fact, similar tales have been spun with typical West Coast dazzle, where gifted children often are depicted as frail recluses, robot-like super-geeks or bumbling social misfits.

Twelve-year-old Alex Brueggeman, however, has a cheery disposition that lacks the drama of the silver screen. Instead, he lives a well-balanced life that includes attending The University of Memphis as a sophomore.



From ABC to A = BC

Alex is the youngest person ever to attend The U of M. He is “profoundly gifted” (PG); by definition, his IQ exceeds 180. He and his parents, Gay McCarter, an artist, and Mike Brueggeman, a neurologist, live in nearby Jackson, Tenn. They say The U of M’s combination of location and professionalism, along with a good dose of Southern hospitality, has been too good to miss.

“I like the classes and a lot of the teachers,” Alex says. “I like the labs best of all. The only thing I don’t like about it is the drive. If I could only pick up this University and plop it down in Jackson!”

Alex’s parents had suspected he might be college-bound earlier than most when they noticed his exceptional ability to learn.

“Alex started reading road signs when he was 2,” McCarter says. “We thought that was sort of unusual! Most learning curves go in 45-degree angles, but for PG kids, the learning curve is vertical — they just shoot up like a rocket.”

In kindergarten, Alex was scolded for reading 7th-grade-level books instead of nursery rhymes. It was apparent early on that he would need a drastically different education than most children.

Three years of home schooling followed, and Alex absorbed information like a sponge as he blazed through the curriculum. By age 9, he clearly needed something more.

Jackson (Tenn.) State Community College was a temporary answer. Alex eased into collegiate work with a second-year Spanish class. It was a success. He aced the course, and his classmates elected him as treasurer of the Spanish Club.

Alex continued the next two years sampling classes at The U of M’s Jackson campus and Lambuth University before ultimately taking advantage of The U of M’s excellent research facilities and able-minded professors.

Proving grounds

Alex has been well-received at The U of M, but most people’s conception of what a profoundly gifted child is like tends to be exaggerated. Perhaps the most aggravating misconception people tend to have, McCarter says, is that Alex should have stayed in public school with children his own age.

“I just can’t imagine Alex being in sixth grade right now,” she says. “That’s where he’d be based on his age. He’d be bored out of his mind. That’s one reason we like Memphis so much: They treat him like a college sophomore, not a sixth-grader.”

Alex is well-adjusted to college life, but he’s faced his fair share of challenges along the way.

One memorable experience came in the third grade, when he entered a model-rocket project in a science fair.
The project was top-notch. It was so good, in fact, that the judges doubted the work was actually Alex’s.
“The worst thing was none of the judges asked me about it,” he says. “Well, one talked to me, but all he asked was ‘How much of this did you do?’”

The disbelieving judges kept first prize away from Alex’s project, but unable to prove any wrongdoing, they begrudgingly gave him second place. The project was later published in Sport Rocketry.

Many people don’t understand Alex because he sits beyond their range of personal experiences, McCarter says. There aren’t many PG children to know, period. Some research suggests there are as little as one or two profoundly gifted children for every one million births.

Even on a college campus, there can be the occasional misunderstanding. Skeptics sometimes surface when an elementary-age child walks into a college classroom, sits down and starts taking notes.

“At my first day at Lambuth, in my very first class,” Alex says, “a guy came in, pointed his finger in my face, and said ‘You don’t belong here — get out.’ I actually had to pull out my student ID and show it to him.”

There also were a couple of run-ins with students at The U of M who felt the need in class to prove Alex wrong at every possible opportunity. These kinds of criticisms can be very taxing on PG children, the majority of whom are perfectionists and highly sensitive.

Alex’s parents advise him to take the negativity like “water off a duck’s back.” He does admit that he’s highly sensitive, but says it’s not debilitating.

“I don’t cry at AT&T commercials or anything,” he says. Both he and his parents agree that attending The U of M has been an overall rewarding experience socially and academically.

Ordinary kid, extraordinary brain

In his chemistry class, Alex chicken-scratches notes while sitting quietly and attentively. Dr. Antonio Ferreira (PhD ’00), assistant professor of chemistry, guides the students through a lecture on mass, volume and density.


The lesson’s difficulty is apparent on several students’ faces, who furl their brows or stare blankly at the blackboard. Some students write down concepts and examples at a furious pace, but Alex just jots down an occasional note or equation.

“A lot of this is still review for me,” he says, “But it’ll get harder soon enough.”

After class, Alex signs the attendance roster. Several students greet him with a typical “Hi, Alex,” or “Hey, Alex, how’s it going?” One late arriver even asks him what had happened during the first 10 minutes of class.

“Perhaps the most striking personal trait I’ve noticed with Alexander,” Ferreira says, “is the way that other students seem to seek out his opinion and assistance. I’ve noticed that students much older than he will stop him after class and ask him for help with chemistry. It’s almost as if they are drawn to him.”

Alex may be a minor celebrity on campus, but friendly disposition has as much to do with it as brainpower. His physical appearance helps further to shake off negative “child genius” stereotypes some hold. He’s a handsome kid, complete with freckled cheeks and a charming smile.

Alex is no oddity, just an ordinary kid with an extraordinary brain. And despite his status, his childhood remains mostly intact. He is quick to swap strategies for Baldur’s Gate, a popular computer game. (Never mind that he tweaked the game’s programming code for his own amusement!) He makes slightly off-color jokes, and blushes afterward. He likes to play basketball with his friends. He doodles in the margins of his school notebooks.

Outside the classroom

Alex’s mother says he’s a “young man in a unique situation,” but defining him solely as a college student paints an incomplete picture. Life’s definitely not just textbooks and Bunsen burners. Alex’s extracurricular schedule is staggering at times. He has a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do, and he takes violin lessons. He likes racquetball, fencing, and going hiking and camping with his father.

Alex’s social life includes maintaining friends whose ages and locations are quite varied.

“Friends I have made in college are usually through my classes,” he says. “I don’t have as much opportunity to develop those friendships — that long drive home interferes quite a bit. I like walking between classes and greeting several friends I know, and catching up with how their classes are going this semester or sitting with them in class, sharing jokes. It makes the campus seem smaller and friendlier.”

Then there are friends his own age. Some are strictly “long distance” PG friends from all over the country, but Alex keeps in touch through phone calls and occasional visits.

“The last one in Texas was a blast!” he says. “Six guys, ages 11 to 13, and a huge pillow fight. We also sat up half the night and most of the next day having a marathon Magic: The Gathering card game. It was great.”

Alex is able to see his friends in Jackson more frequently. They keep busy inside on the computer, and outside playing basketball or riding scooters and skateboards.

A bright future

Some people might wonder how long it will take before Alex jets off to some Ivy League college to finish his studies. Several aspects of The U of M, though, are keeping Alex firmly in place. Through the Honors College, he can take classes that are smaller, more challenging and thus more rewarding. Honors students have been “surprised and intrigued” by Alex’s presence, says Honors Program Director Melinda Jones, but he has had no trouble stepping up to the role of college student.

“I’m always amazed that he sits down with college students and fits in perfectly,” Dr. Jones says. “He’s very attentive and contributes to any conversation or lecture.”

Ferreira also commends Alex’s discipline and willingness to learn.

“In a world where so many students are in class merely to earn a grade, Alexander stands out as a young man who demands more of himself,” he says. “He exhibits a true desire to learn the material.”

Jones had put enough faith in Alex’s abilities to nominate him for the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, an honor he received. Only one other student from The U of M was nominated, and only 300 students nationwide were chosen.

Another campus capstone is The U of M’s admirable collection of first-rate research equipment, including treasures such as the University’s atomic force microscope, the audiology lab and the Institute for Intelligent Systems’ AutoTutor project.

“The U of M has a great deal going for it,” McCarter says. “It is one of the best-kept secrets in the South. We wouldn’t make the three-hour round-trip drive every day if it wasn’t worth it.”

As it stands now, Alex anticipates getting his bachelor’s of science in biology with a minor in chemistry by 2005. At that pace, he’ll have his master’s of science in molecular biology by 2007. He’ll be 17 years old — an age when most are applying for college, not putting the finishing touches on their master’s thesis.

Then, after a “well-deserved vacation” to Europe, Alex wants to pursue a Ph.D. in plant molecular genetics.

“Human genetics interests me a lot, but plant genetics haven’t been delved into as much,” he says. “I love studying plants. I even have some carnivorous plants in my room.”

Alex says that plants could hold the solutions to certain human diseases or environmental problems. For example, he says, some plants are being developed to break down oil, mercury and other industrial by-products. It’s a noble way to turn his personal blessings back onto the world.

Hollywood would be disappointed with Alex’s balanced, straight-ahead approach to life, but he is already used to bending those “child genius” stereotypes. Super-geek, indeed.

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