2013-05-30 / Community

18-year-old earns dual degrees from UC Berkeley

By Sylvie Belmond


SIBS—Melanie Vaisman congratuates her sister after Michelle’s graduation from UC Berkeley where she earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and a bachelor of arts in applied math. 
Courtesy of Karen Vaisman Photography SIBS—Melanie Vaisman congratuates her sister after Michelle’s graduation from UC Berkeley where she earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and a bachelor of arts in applied math. Courtesy of Karen Vaisman Photography At 18, Michelle Vaisman has earned dual degrees from UC Berkeley.

The Agoura Hills resident graduated with high honors from UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry. She won a $2,000 award, the Erich O. & Elly M. Saegebarth Prize in Chemistry, and also received a Bachelor of Arts in applied math from the university’s College of Letters and Science.

“Although she is extremely smart, Michelle doesn’t let her success go to her head,” said her grandmother Sandy Alpert. “She is actually a delightfully humble girl.”

Vaisman, a two-time winner of the Cal Alumni Leadership Award at UC Berkeley, will attend Yale University in the fall to work toward a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

She is a Young Scholar alumni of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development for profoundly gifted youth and a member of American Mensa, High IQ and American Chemical societies.

Vaisman has been a materials science researcher in Dr. Angelica Stacy’s UC Berkeley lab for three years, and has done organic chemistry, quantum solar dot and graphene research during the summer at Caltech, Cornell, and Harvard universities.

“I love to learn new things every day,” said Vaisman, who also plays violin and piano.

Vaisman attended Viewpoint School in Calabasas from kindergarten through fifth grade. She skipped sixth grade and attended Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, where she continued earning straight- A’s through seventh and eighth grades.

The day before her 13th birthday, Michelle was accepted into Mary Baldwin College Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, a four-year liberal arts college in Staunton, Va.

She was offered a $13,000 merit scholarship based on her high SAT scores. She took the test at age 11 through the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

“ When I got the postcard (from Mary Baldwin College) in the mail, initially I was intimidated. I didn’t know if I was ready for it, but once I started I knew it was the right choice,” Vaisman said.

She skipped high school entirely to attend Mary Baldwin College.

Her sister, Melanie, two years older, was also accepted to the program. Melanie started at the college one semester after her sister, taking classes there for three semesters before transferring to UC Davis, where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and genetics.

In spring 2010, at age 15, Michelle Vaisman transferred to Bryn Mawr College, then transferred to UC Berkeley in fall 2010 as a junior to pursue her passion for math and science.

Vaisman said the smaller colleges allowed her to prepare for the more challenging coursework at Berkeley.

“If I hadn’t started small I don’t think I would have been successful in Berkeley,” said Vaisman, who is looking forward to graduate work.

“She was accepted into six graduate schools,” said her mother, Karen Vaisman.

Although her daughter was five years younger than most of her peers in college, she was always able to make friends and relate to other students, her mother said.

“Michelle was always very mature for her age, and she was able to acclimate very well,” said Karen Vaisman, adding that her daughter is organized and selfmotivated.

“We fostered these innate abilities but believe she was born with them. They were paramount in helping her achieve her goals,” said Vaisman, a professional portrait photographer.

From the outset of Michelle Vaisman’s unusual educational journey, her parents worked together to support her academic pursuits and build her selfconfi dence.

“It’s important for the parents to be on the same page. It’s a strong enabler,” said her father, Fima Vaisman, a chief business officer for a biotechnology company in Westlake Village.

Karen Vaisman said education should be an individualized experience based on the child’s needs. The child should take the lead, but their social and emotional needs should be considered along with their academic ones.

Once she earns her Ph.D., Michelle Vaisman plans to pursue a career in intellectual property law or consulting so she can work in a variety of scientific fields. She will focus on topics at the intersection of nanoscience and alternative energy.

“The reason I take science is because I always wanted to make a larger impact,” Vaisman said.

“ That is why I focus on alternative energy. It’s very important to make the world a better place, and I feel I have the ability to help this movement through research in college and later on in a career in patent law and consulting.”

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