Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how old Paige Epler was when she played the violin for President Obama. She was 12, not 9. This version has been corrected.
Sure, Paige Epler is crazy smart, as you’d expect of a 19-year-old who graduated from George Mason University on Wednesday with a 4.0 grade-point average. (She could have graduated at 18, but she didn’t want to rush.) But she has so many other interests and skills that she defies the stereotype of someone who’s, well, crazy smart.
She takes comedy improv classes. She created a “Save the Sharks” presentation that has been used by the Smithsonian. She loves Irish step dancing and classical music. She sings like a bird. She has done serious study on gender bias in children’s advertising. She really loves video games and Pokemon. Her devotion to theater is such that she can cite lines from Shakespeare or “Alice in Wonderland” off the top of her head. She dabbles in archery and fencing. She writes science fiction.
“I think I schedule myself well,” Epler said, explaining how she created such a litany of accomplishments.
Her schedule for the future is also impressive. It includes further study of cancer cells — her specialty while majoring in pre-med biology at Mason— to obtain a couple of more degrees with a goal of treating genetic defects before birth, and perhaps to be an astronaut. She does not have plans beyond age 40, however, because she is not sure how the children she has by then will affect her from that point on.
But is all this at the expense of growing up like any other suburban child? “Certainly not,” said Epler, who learned to play the violin so well that at age 12 she performed for President Obama during an Inaugural event in 2009.
“I did not miss my childhood. I was able to have friends and hang out,” she added politely, firmly and in her characteristic style of speaking in complete, fully formed sentences. “Perhaps I was able to do more than others. But I was able to visit museums, have parties or play video games.”
And she has plenty of friends in the Woodbridge neighborhood where she grew up. They gathered with her Wednesday night at a local Olive Garden to celebrate Epler’s latest in what is likely to be a long list of accomplishments.
“I see her as a really successful scientist,” said Nitin Agrawal, one of her bioengineering professors at Mason. “Although she was the youngest student in our group, she was very active, always asking questions, very inquisitive. She has a lot of potential.”
Epler’s mother, Pamela Epler, tried to explain her teen daughter’s incredible intellect and accomplishments as mostly the result of diligent early developmental work, though she allowed that genetics “might have a little to do with it.” Her mother is a former high school math teacher who works as an educational consultant, and her father, Tony Epler, is an IT security consultant and former fighter pilot.
The story of Paige Epler’s epic intellectual rise is likely to become the stuff of legend. And it began in 1996 when Pamela Epler, then a pregnant teacher, began looking for ways to raise a smart baby. She said she found books by Glenn Doman, founder of The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential near Philadelphia, including one called “Teach Your Baby to Read.”
Pamela Epler said she made up flashcards before Paige was born, and “when she was a few days old, I started flashing these reading cards. She just kept absorbing it. She’d get so excited when I brought out the cards. It was a lot of fun.”
At 1, Paige began reading labels. At 2, she was reading from a medical encyclopedia. By 4, when her mother took her to the school district in New Jersey to enroll her for kindergarten, an administrator tested Paige and found that she was reading at an eighth-grade level. She did not enter kindergarten.
Instead, Pamela Epler began home-schooling her after the family moved to Northern Virginia, utilizing an accredited program through the University of Oklahoma that used instructors in Oklahoma and formally proctored tests. She graduated at 13, also with a 4.0 GPA.
Her parents began looking for a college. George Mason initially said no to a 13-year-old freshman. But Paige wrote to the academic affairs office, noting that she had her diploma and all her credentials, and “they came back and said yes,” Pamela Epler said. Paige matriculated in the fall of 2009.
She initially intended to major in astrophysics. “But I switched [majors] because I liked the applicability of biology,” she said. She plans to return to Mason in the fall for a second bachelor’s degree in bioengineering with a minor in biochemistry, then perhaps a master’s degree, and then a dual PhD/MD.
“It’s taken me a bit longer” to earn her first degree at the ripe old age of 19, “because I wanted to actually learn, to understand the material in depth. . . . I like a lot of multidisciplinary studies, or studies that overlap physics and biology.” When she uses terms such as “multidisciplinary” or “cancer cell adaptation in a hypoxic environment,” they flow easily, not like she’s trying to prove something.
“I see a problem that needs to be solved and try to solve it,” she said, whether it’s cystic fibrosis, or sharks, or girls in science and engineering. “I tend to think on a large and rather impersonal scale.”