Wednesday, June 11, 2008

UWG Celebrates its Youngest Grad

The University of West Georgia made history when the youngest graduate in the University System of Georgia walked across the stage to receive his diploma.

Ajay Pillai, 17, earned a degree in biochemistry and will study at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta in the fall.

“Graduation was the most stunning day of my life,” said Ajay Pillai, who is a Warner Robins resident. “I grew up at West Georgia and I am so incredibly happy that I came to this university and that things occurred the way they did.”

After graduating eighth grade, Ajay Pillai enrolled at the Advanced Academy of Georgia on the UWG campus at the age of 13, the youngest student to do so. The academy is one of 12 residential programs for teens in the country that allows students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously.

Diane Darling, an Advanced Academy student who will graduate high school this month, met Ajay Pillai two years ago and became close friends.

“Ajay is ridiculously hard working and humble at the same time,” said Darling, 18. “I’m always in awe of how he handles everything.”

The quiet and unassuming student studied Honors College curriculum at UWG and holds the second highest number of honors courses, 19, in the history of the Honors College. But he still had time to play soccer, run five miles a day, practice piano and take up the guitar.

Don Wagner, dean of the Honors College and director of Special Programs, said Ajay Pillai left his mark on UWG.

“He is a remarkable human being, mature way beyond his years,” said Wagner. “He possesses excellent study habits and an extraordinary mind, and is a very nice person as well.

“I have known him since he entered the academy, and I have always been impressed with his social skills. In addition to his academic abilities, Ajay has the bearing and manners of an adult. He is a rare individual.”

Aruna Pillai, Ajay’s mother, said she should have brought Kleenex to the commencement ceremony. “It didn’t hit me until the president, Dr. Beheruz Sethna, began talking about Ajay and then I began bawling. I was not expecting that reaction. It was deep inside.”

One of Ajay Pillai’s biggest fans at the university is the president, who established the Advanced Academy and gained the USG Board of Regents approval to open the Honors College, the only one of its kind in Georgia.

“It has been my pleasure to get to know Ajay and assist him in what I know will be a spectacular career,” said Sethna. “I am glad that we have contributed to his growth, and that he will contribute to ours in the future, by virtue of his future accomplishments.”

Ajay Pillai’s summer vacation will not be a typical one. A long time volunteer in hospitals and clinics, he will work with his parents, who are physicians and own a practice in Warner Robins. The couple needed help in their office and put their son to work taking electrocardiograms and checking in patients.

“Normally, we have to train an employee for several weeks,” Aruna Pillai said. “Ajay picked it up in a day.”

His interest in medicine stems from his years of volunteer work at a hospital and medical clinics, his undergraduate research in the laboratories at West Georgia and working as a student research assistant with Dr. Satyanarayana Swamy-Mruthinti, professor of biology.
“I like having that contact with people and I am also interested in medicine,” said Pillai. “But, I haven’t decided what kind of medicine I am going into.”

Swamy-Mruthinti mentored Ajay Pillai for three years and got to know the student well.
“Rarely you come across a student who is intelligent, hardworking and has an intense desire to succeed, yet is modest and humble,” said Swamy-Mruthinit. “I am confident that he will make significant contributions to improve human health and well being."

Under normal circumstances, the M.D. and Ph.D program at the medical college requires seven years of study. Students entering the program complete the standard two-year preclinical program with many of the preclinical medical school courses also earning graduate credit for the student.

During the summer between the first and second years, Ajay Pillai will perform laboratory rotations at one of the four research campuses in Georgia. Choices for laboratory rotations are made by students in consultation with program advisers.

Following the preclinical years, students enter graduate training at one of the four graduate campus sites. Students are required to complete all of the normal doctorate requirements, including preliminary exams, thesis and defense.

For now, the youngest graduate in the university system will enjoy his summer saving up for an automobile, traveling and helping out in the family business.

“I so appreciate all of the people at West Georgia and want to thank everyone that helped me with my research, at the Advanced Academy and in the Honors College,” said Ajay Pillai in a recent interview. “They really helped me to do this and now I have a group of close friends that I’ve grown up with.”

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