May 29, 2010

By Marty Gitlin
Special to

OBERLIN, Ohio - Isaac Stein took calculus at Western Michigan University six years ago.

Nothing unusual about that. A lot of students took calculus at WMU in 2004. But there was one slight difference between Stein and his classmates. He was in eighth grade.

Now a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, Stein has always taken an accelerated course of studies and has stood out in all of them. He had completed his high school math classes by the end of seventh grade.

Not that Stein is merely a bookworm. He excels in skiing and golf and qualified in doubles as a third seed in the NCAA Division III Men's Tennis Championships. Stein and partner Max Woods reached the quarterfinals before falling Saturday to the Trinity (Conn.) duo of Bobby Cocanaugher and Cory Kowal 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Despite the defeat, Stein earned the distinction of a champion when the NCAA presented him with an Elite 88 Award for boasting the highest grade-point average among the players in the tournament. The 21-year-old pre-med student who is planning a career as a neurosurgeon owns a 3.97 GPA.

Stein is following in some distinguished footsteps. His father, Bruce, has a doctorate in chemistry and is a practicing attorney. Mother Christy also earned a doctorate and is a biostatistician. Both have played critical roles in teaching their son through words and deeds the value of an education in their home in Kalamazoo, Mich.

"I remember riding in the car when I was little and my dad giving me math and logic problems," Stein said. "That gave me the mind-set that learning can be fun and that school is something to be proud of when you do well. It's not something to shy away from.

"I find learning enjoyable. It's a challenge not unlike the challenge on a tennis court. You know that if you set your mind to it, you can succeed. It's your duty to learn. It's not like an obligation, but it's fun."

His parents have certainly succeeded as role models for their son. They have placed sports in a proper perspective. Though Stein has performed at top-flight competitive levels in golf, tennis and skiing, it was made it clear to him that his future would be determined by his success or failure academically. "I told him that win or lose, the sun will come up in the morning and you're going to school," said Bruce Stein.

Stein excelled academically from the start. He was invited into the local Academically Talented Youth Program during elementary school and simultaneously attended Portage Central High School and the Kalamazoo Area Math Science Center. He could have furthered his studies at such prestigious academic institutions as Harvard or Stanford and originally wanted to enroll in a big school such as the University of Michigan, but one visit to Washington convinced him that his future was there.

Though the school doesn't have a golf program, Stein decided he preferred tennis anyway. And considering the success he has enjoyed personally and with his teammates in that sport, he has never regretted the decision. Before he bowed out in doubles, he said that no matter what happened on the court Saturday, he was thrilled with the season and the Division III tournament.

"It's definitely been a success," he said. "Our coach (Roger Follmer) stresses that our goals should be performance goals, not achievement goals. You can't control winning or losing when it comes to how your opponent plays. You can control how you practice and how you work with your teammates and how you carry yourself on the court."

And his reaction to winning the Elite 88 Award?

"I was pretty excited," Stein said. "While I don't do what I do academically for any recognition, it's still pretty nice."

Considering he has never received a grade lower than an A-minus since the beginning of junior high school, the honor should surprise no one.