While most kids his age are playing video games and going to junior high dances, Sho Yano, 12, is heading off to medical school. After his graduation from Loyola University of Chicago this month, he will begin the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine in October.
"Their offer to admit me to the MSTP showed that they were willing to give full support and that they somehow recognized my potential to be a medical scientist," Yano said. "Besides this, the University of Chicago was my first choice. It is an elite school with a very high reputation and tough research."
Yano had to convince skeptics at various medical schools that he was ready for the challenge despite his young age. Pritzker decided to admit him after meetings with several administrators and a psychological evaluation.
"He's got just the right instincts to be attuned to what the patient's needs are," said Lawrence Wood, dean for medical education in Pritzker. "I very much enjoyed his answers to questions that I posed to him about patients I was seeing in the intensive care unit. He was thoughtful about inquiring after their degree of discomfort."
About 10 students in each incoming Pritzker class of 104 are accepted into the eight-year MSTP, in which students receive both their doctorate and medical degrees. Most students in the National Institute of Health--funded program complete their first two years of medical school, receive their Ph.D.s in the next four years, and then finish medical school in the last two years of the program.
Yano will instead finish just the first year of medical school and then begin work on his Ph.D. That way, he'll enter the busier clinical part of medical school at about age 18, not too much younger than his 23-year-old incoming classmates, according to Wood.
"I'm quite optimistic that the maturity of our medical students and our sense of collegiality within the medical school will incorporate him into the school," Wood said. "Many student leaders have approached me and said, 'This is really interesting. How can we help make him feel comfortable?'"
Yano, who was born in Portland, Oregon but grew up in Southern California, attended a private elementary school for a year and a school for the highly gifted for three years. After that, he was homeschooled by his mother through the 12th grade. The family moved to Glenview, Illinois when Yano's father's company opened a Chicago office. After Yano received his high school diploma at age nine, the family began looking at universities in the area. Loyola was very willing to help Yano, and offered him a full scholarship.
Yano's enrollment at Loyola sparked a media frenzy, and he was featured on the front page of The Chicago Tribune as well as on 60 Minutes II.
"People think I am made different or affected because of media exposure, but not at all," Yano said. "Three years ago and even long after I entered Loyola, I got a huge list of media inquiries from all over the world, but my family discussed it and we carefully selected a little more than 10. I had a lot of fun with them."
Yano sped through Loyola in three years, finishing with a 3.9 GPA and silencing critics who had said he was too young for college.
"In the beginning, not everyone welcomed me, which was normal, but after the first few months almost all of the professors and other students were very supportive and kind," Yano said. "I made many new friends with fellow students, who treated me as an equal or as a little brother."
Yano said that his desire to be a doctor stems from his parents' interest in science and medicine. They often would buy science books and magazines and discuss them, always making sure to explain everything to Yano and his six-year-old sister.
"I always wanted to help people in some way," he said. "As my interest in medicine and science developed, I realized that if I mixed these two fields in research, I could be some help to people's well-being, even a small one."
In addition to his passion for science, Yano composes music and plays classical piano--he even considered becoming a professional pianist before deciding to become a physician. He also enjoys gardening and has a black belt in tae kwon do