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Kelsey Ladt: A UK graduate at 14

Two professors of medicine at the University of Kentucky looked out an office window into an open courtyard two years ago to see a student staring straight up, transfixed by something.

It was the hectic break between classes and students were flying past her, but this student didn't move a muscle, didn't shift her backpack, didn't breathe. The more they watched her, the more concerned they became.

Then, Dr. Darrell Jennings recognized the university student who was captivated by the tangle of butterflies just above her head. It was Kelsey.

Everything made sense then.

What 11-year-old girl can turn away from the unbidden gift of the flash of a dozen pairs of brightly colored wings?

On Saturday, three months after her 14th birthday, Kelsey Curd Ladt graduated summa cum laude from UK with a degree in biology with honors.

The first time she stepped onto the campus was six years ago, when she was shown around the UK Hospital and its research labs after expressing an interest in medical research, specifically focusing on the brain.

She was just 8 then and had already completed elementary school.

By the time other students Kelsey's age had completed fifth grade, she was graduating valedictorian of her high school class in Paducah and simultaneously getting her associate's degree from West Kentucky Community and Technical College. Everybody at UK had said she was welcome there even though she was 11 and, with braces and pigtails, looked it.

This was no ordinary child. Yet, she was.

The first time she met her biology professor and mentor Felix Akojoe at WKCTC, she had just climbed a tree on campus. He did not ask that she come down for a proper introduction.

She has done cartwheels on the lawn of UK's William T. Young Library. (And in the process got others interested. They, unfortunately, lost their car keys in the doing, and she had to help look for them in the big grassy field next to the library.)

She has been in biology labs where latex gloves could not be found in sizes small enough to fit her.

All along the way in her so-far extraordinary educational journey, she has been required to meet every intellectual expectation of her academic peers and she has done so with aplomb.

But she has always been allowed to have the joy and spirit to be a child among them.

"It was the unexpected bonus of Kelsey," says Jennings, at UK's College of Medicine. "We have gained so much from having her. It has enriched us."

Accommodating her 'special need'

The only concession ever made for Kelsey's age while on campus was a small one.

Early on, her advisers decided she needed a smaller peer group to work with. At UK, there's a group of students who are in an accelerated course of study for 18-year-olds who are certain they want to be doctors. Thus committed, they get through college and medical school in seven years, instead of eight. The group meets at 5 p.m. Fridays.

During the winter, the group finishes up after dark. Pretty soon, it was clear to Jennings and others that they couldn't "turn Kelsey loose in the middle of the medical center campus" at night before her mother came to pick her up. So they arranged for people to take turns waiting with her.

"We would do the same for someone deaf or blind," Jennings said. "We would expect them to live up to our academic standards but we would help accommodate their special needs."

This was her special need: She could chew you up and spit you out in Calculus III but not necessarily otherwise until she got a little older.

In a 'Twilight' zone

Today, Kelsey and her parents are leaving Lexington to settle into new surroundings in Bethesda, Md., so Kelsey can start a year of research at the prestigious National Institutes of Health. From there she will apply to programs across the country that combine medical and doctoral degrees in a seven-year course of study. She will begin in spring 2010.

Her heart's desire is to be a researcher and a clinician, to solve the problem of sickness and to cure the individual, to touch them in the doing.

Last summer, when Kelsey was just 13, she spent her days at the NIH in an internship program that had her using transcranial magnetic stimulation in neurological research aimed at understanding what influences our decisions.

At night — at least one night — she found herself third in line at a Bethesda Barnes & Noble with what seemed like every other teenage girl in Maryland waiting for the midnight release of Breaking Dawn, the third volume of the teenage heart-throb vampire saga Twilight. Kelsey had to know if Bella Swan was going to marry Edward or Jacob. She was, she says, "on Team Edward."

She read the book quickly between soccer games and basketball and church group and softball, things her mother couldn't help but sign her up for the minute she hit town.

"Her parents put a special focus on her socialization," says Kelsey's longtime mentor, Joy Navan, director for gifted studies at Murray State University. "They enrolled her in every sport. She had sleepovers, lots of friends her age. They wanted her to be seen for who she was and not for what she could do in the classroom."

Kelsey wears flip-flops with peace signs on them. She won't let anyone photograph her room. She likes the rock band Panic at the Disco.

Navan explains that close tabs have been kept on Kelsey since she was 5 to make sure she was neither stressed nor hurried in her intellectual development.

Still, to her mother, there is this: "Kelsey's greatest gift is her heart, not her mind," she says. "She has always been full of compassion and empathy toward others. Not only has she raised funds for charitable organizations since she was 8, she meets individual needs as they arise, sometimes anonymously, sometimes directly.

"As an example, this past summer, we made the mistake of visiting a popular hamburger restaurant in Bethesda the day it had a big write-up in The Washington Post. It was so hot, and we were so hungry. After waiting an hour and a half in line, Kelsey took all of her food to a man who was looking in the trash for food."

It is part of the Ladts' core belief: Kelsey must be a good steward of her extraordinary intellectual gift. To hear all those around her tell, she is the one least impressed by it.

Recognizing her potential

Vickie Ladt agrees that all parents think their kids are gifted. Still, when she and her husband, Ric, had to hire someone to play school with their 2-year-old daughter — to teach her Spanish and sign language because the usual stuff you do with toddlers wasn't all that fascinating to Kelsey — they didn't think too much about it.

"Our frame of reference was Kelsey," Vickie Ladt says.

So they bought workbooks for preschoolers and took her to two preschools — one in the morning, one in the afternoon — to keep her engaged.

In kindergarten, the school allowed Kelsey to get a library card and let her give herself comprehension tests on the books she read while the other kids in the class were putting "L's" on their left hands and "R's" on their rights.

When Kelsey was doing third-grade math before most kids had counted to 100, it was time to get the child's IQ tested, they were told.

First, they went to Murray State's Navan, who performed IQ and grade-placement tests on Kelsey. Further testing was done by Linda Silverman at the Gifted Development Center in Denver.

Both experts soon sat down with the Ladts and, in effect, said, "You need to get her into college as soon as possible."

"We were the proverbial deer caught in headlights," says Ric Ladt. "Where do we start?"

Everything that happened next was just plain godsend. The McCracken County school district, with its 27,000 students, reevaluated Kelsey's educational program and moved mountains to make it work. Teachers taught her everything they could in a grade until they were out of curricula. If a community policy had to be changed, the community changed it.

She was home-schooled during the middle school curricula by mutual agreement of the school and the Ladts, for Kelsey's security and well-being. The process was anything but expected, anything but parent-driven.

"Unfortunately, it was faith," says Vickie Ladt. "We didn't want her leaving the nest early. She'd come home from school and say, 'I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to skip a grade.' Or, 'I'm afraid you're going to have to home-school me.' Kelsey was happiest with her academic peers," says her mother. "With our fingers crossed and a lot of prayers, we've held on."

They have done more than that. Ric Ladt has gone on to be president of the National Association for Gifted Children and is on Kentucky's Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, in hopes of improving education for all the state's children.

When she was accepted into UK, they made the difficult but necessary choice to live apart four days of the week. Ric Ladt stays in Paducah, where he is president and CEO of PEBCO, a powder and bulk solids equipment handling company. He drives to Lexington on Thursday nights and stays through Sunday.

Vickie Ladt has her own human resources consultancy and can work from anywhere.

"I would, like any parent, like the opportunity to be with my family all the time," says Ric Ladt, with tears in his eyes. "But Kelsey has given up a lot, being with her friends and family. If she's willing to do it, I can do my part."

Less than 1 in 6 million

Kelsey's parents prefer that she be called "profoundly gifted."

But just how gifted is she?

Murray State's Navan explains that estimates are imprecise, but the likelihood of having Kelsey's brain power is something less than 1 in 6 million. Kelsey's "rage to know," he says, and the help she has received that accelerated her learning have only amped her potential.

Kelsey also has a very clear goal of who she wants to be and what she wants to accomplish. Jennings, of UK's medical school, explained that Kelsey's greatest advantage might be that she will be finished with her formal training — with a medical degree and a Ph.D. — when she has just turned 22, a time when most students are only starting medical school.

"Not to put pressure on Kelsey, but historically most major conceptual revolutions in science have been conceived by those with profound insights when scientists were in their 20s."

He gave the examples of Einstein's theory of general relativity, Marie Curie's work with radioactivity and James D. Watson's discovery of DNA. The question seems to be "are we expending the most creative years of researchers' lives in training? If so, Kelsey may get to skirt that."

Understanding it all

Asked to talk about how her brain works, Kelsey, always polite and yet luminous, demurs.

"I just think of myself as just a little faster processor," she says. "Otherwise, I'm a typical teenager."

One who has, at last, found her intellectual level and is working at it. She must study, she insists now.

And yet, there is this: "If there is something I see that I don't know, I want to understand it."

Like film, for example. So she took a film class at WKCTS and can talk about symbolism in film noir now. Like scuba. She was 11 and had to wait until she was 12, legal age, to learn. Like what free radical attacks proteins in the cell membrane that is preventing cell regeneration in spinal cord injuries.

She is working with Dr. Joe Springer and others in his lab on this and is writing a paper with his help on the topic.

Or like butterflies. She continues to study them. Every chance she gets.

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