1. The Education Gradebook

USF's youngest grad ever: He's 16 and will get a degree in cell and molecular biology

TAMPA — Drew Falkowitz was born wildly intelligent. He started reading before he turned 2 and took his first high school class at 9.

On Friday, at 16, he will graduate from the University of South Florida in Tampa — the youngest person ever to earn a degree from the institution since its founding in 1956. And he is set to start a master's degree program there in the fall.

Surrounded by reporters inside USF's Marshall Student Center Wednesday, Falkowitz said he can understand why graduating at his age is a big deal to people. But for him, it feels normal.

EDUCATION MATTERS: Visit the Times education page for school news in Tampa Bay and beyond.

He has always pushed past his peers academically. Sometimes, that brought challenges and sacrifice. During his last three years at USF, though, he finally felt like he fit somewhere. "Everybody, even though they're four or five years older than me in some cases, we still get along just fine," he said. "People in college care a whole lot less about age."

His mother, Tracy Falkowitz, calls USF her son's "saving grace." There are people like him there, she said, and the university has never put limits on what her son can do.

She remembers the first time he shocked her with his smarts. He was about 20 months old when a dog walked by their living room window, and he turned to her to say: "D-O-G, dog."

She scooped him up in her arms and walked into his room to pick out a children's book. He opened it and started reading.

"My first thought was, 'This is going to be an issue,'" Tracy Falkowitz said. "What do you do with a 1-year-old that can read? Where do they fit? Where do they go?"

The coming years proved difficult for Drew, his mother said. It's hard for a highly gifted kid to make friends when he's smarter than others his age, and younger than those with the same academic capabilities.

"There was no peer group for him," Tracy Falkowitz said. "Most kids his age wanted to talk about Ninja Turtles while he wanted to talk about the latest (genetic) research."

She enrolled him in a private school in Hillsborough County for kindergarten when he was 4. He accelerated so quickly that she and her husband, Steve, soon transferred him to a Montessori-style school, where teachers encouraged her son to go as far as his brain would take him.

But the school ran out of materials for him by the time he was 9. That's when the family looked to Florida's online high school options after consulting with the Davidson Institute. The Nevada-based nonprofit claims to "nurture and support profoundly intelligent young people" with IQs in the top 0.1 percent.

Falkowitz participated in the organization's THINK summer program at 13, then again at 14, earning credit for four college classes in a matter of weeks. He finished high school courses online soon after, looking to USF as the logical next step.

But he was still only a young teenager who had never been on a high school campus, let alone one like USF Tampa with tens of thousands of legal adults holding driver's licenses and jobs and apartment leases.

"My freshman year was a grueling learning experience," he said. "It was basically coming into a college environment with the social skills of a 9-year-old."

He says he's still "catching up on the social front" of college. But in his three years studying cell and molecular biology at USF, he made some friends and wowed professors.

In a letter recommending Falkowitz for grad school, USF professor Kimberly Fields praised him for earning the highest grade — a 103.11 — in her organic chemistry II class. He once submitted a "model project," she wrote.

Falkowitz also has made plans to move out of his parents' house and into a dorm for graduate school. And maybe he'll get his driver's license, which he delayed for good reason.

"He put it off because he was focusing on his organic chemistry classes," Tracy Falkowitz said.

As he continues through classes at USF and eventually builds a career researching genetics, Falkowitz said he will always remember his parents' lessons about humility. It's not about being smart, they'd tell him. What matters most is how he uses his knowledge.

"I want to use my passion to help people," he said. "Otherwise, it's just me being smart for some sort of abstract reason that has no tangible effects."

So while he'll admit that he's proud of how far he's come at such a young age, both academically and socially, Falkowitz said he will never be prideful.

"I'm just thankful," he said. "I'm happy that I'm happy."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.