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Newsmakers

Math wiz Mark Andrew Yao: The numbers always add up

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The Philippine Star

When Mark Andrew Yao, the valedictorian of Class 2012 of The British School Manila (BSM), was three years old, he retold from memory two fairy tales (Tom Thumb and Jack and the Beanstalk) read to him by his nanny to his flabbergasted parents. He had not yet learned how to read at the time, but his parents could point to any page in any of the two 50-page books and Mark would take a look at the illustration on the page and recite its contents, from the first word to the last.

His parents Emerson and Lingling Yao were so “shocked” by their three-year-old’s “supernatural abilities” they brought him to a psychiatrist. The doctor assured them their son wasn’t normal — he was gifted.

That was 15 years ago, and that three-year-old recently graduated from BSM with the Year Achievement Award (equivalent to Valedictorian), in addition to awards for being the best in Math, Physics, Economics, Psychology and Mandarin. He was also honored with the Year Leadership Award. He delivered the valedictory on behalf of his class.

You would think that such an exceptional teenager would be either a bespectacled nerd — or a bespectacled airbag.

Over a lunch meeting, I would discover a young man who is neither. He actually looked and conducted himself like the boy-next-door. Soft-spoken but eloquent, deferential but confident.

“I’m not ‘different.’ I don’t see numbers floating in air. But I’ve loved Math ever since I was a child with a multiplication table in hand,” recounts Mark, who is going to Harvard next month. “Back then, it was probably because I saw Math as a game, where I would challenge myself to solve arithmetic faster and handle larger numbers. Now that I am a little bit older and have learned a lot more Math, the subject has transformed from an exciting, fast-paced game to a more complex, intriguing puzzle. It’s no longer about seeing how quickly I can answer questions, but instead, with regards to the toughest problems I’ve seen, whether I can answer them at all. Nevertheless, I still enjoy dissecting a problem, analyzing its intricacies, and seeing the solution slowly unfold before me. And, of course, just like when I was a child, there’s nothing better than the sense of fulfillment that comes with arriving at the answer.”

* * *

Mark is the eldest of two children of Emerson Yao, an engineer by profession and now the managing director of the family-owned Lucerne group of companies; and his wife Lingling, a dentist by profession. The proud parents say they aren’t Math geniuses, with Ling joking that she only knows how to count teeth well. Neither was she a “Tiger Mom,” as mothers of Chinese descent are often labeled for their strict upbringing of their children.

Ling says she is more of a “Cat” mom to Mark and his sister May, who excels in the arts.

Mark says that the pressure on him to be the best didn’t come from his parents.

“The standard at home was ‘do your best.’ That would be enough to take home. They didn’t demand A’s. The pressure to do well was brought on by myself,” reveals Mark, who plays badminton and the piano to unwind.

Aside from graduating at the top of his BSM class of 50 students, Mark also garnered a perfect score — 45 — at the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program, a two-year program targeted at high school students aged 16 to 19 that aims to prepare them for higher education. In the May 2012 exam session, the average diploma score was 29.83, with only 109 out of over 119,000 candidates worldwide achieving the maximum score, 45.

What motivated Mark not only to TRY his best, as was his parents’ standard, but also to BE the best, as was his only standard?

“I like doing things for other people. Like in basketball, you offer your best shot for someone. In my case, I work for everyone who has invested in me, especially my parents and teachers,” says Mark, the great-grandson of Chinese immigrants who found their niche in the watch business in the Philippines. “I want them to have a good return on their investment.”

He says he is also doing his best, “for God.” Not wanting to be caught in debates about the existence of God, this Math genius says, “I am happy in my state of belief.”

* * *

Mark involves himself with community service programs initiated by BSM, like building houses for Habitat for Humanity. He has participated in the Model United Nations (MUN), an extracurricular activity in which students take part in a simulated version of the United Nations. He has participated in MUN for the last five years, holding a variety of positions such as Deputy Secretary General of The Hague International Model United Nations (THIMUN) Singapore 2011.

But Mark, who attended the Jesuit-run Xavier School in Greenhills in his primary school years, also believes he is being of service to others when he shares with them his talents in Math.

For the last two years, he has been teaching Math for at least two hours during weekends at a Kumon Center. For the most part, he was teaching pro bono.

“I am teaching people who are not in dire need. But I am using my unique capabilities for the best,” he points out.

As he steps into the threshold of a new world at Harvard, Mark has a spring in his step.

“I’m looking forward to the amazing group of people waiting for me, not just at Harvard, but also all over Cambridge and neighboring Boston. I’m excited to meet professors, classmates and friends from all over the world, some of whom I share passions and interests with as well as others who can show me a different perspective on life. With these people, and the knowledge they bring with them, I hope to be constantly inspired with the thrill of new possibilities,” says Mark, who plans to either major in Economics or Applied Mathematics.

* * *

Emerson and Ling raised their children not to be obsessed with material goods and to be content with what they have. Still, they couldn’t help but give their hardworking son a Panerai as a graduation gift.

True to form, they don’t want to pressure Mark into working for the family business after Harvard.

“If he can come back to the family business, that is the plan. But we don’t want to set limits for him — he might come up with something bigger. We still want him to dream,” says Emerson.

The sky’s the limit for Mark at the moment. He doesn’t discount public service, either. “It’s definitely a very rewarding career in that your work is changing the lives of others for the better,” he points out.

Whatever he chooses to do, whatever path he takes, the numbers will surely add up for Mark. He has added the warmth of good intentions to the icy world of facts, figures and bottomlines. And the sum is a well-rounded life.

“A life well-lived is one that is spent creating meaningful lives, both for the person himself and all those whose lives he touches,” concludes Mark.

Watch him.

* * *

 (You may e-mail me at [email protected].)

APPLIED MATHEMATICS

BEST

BUT I

MARK

MATH

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