Who would you put your money on? A gifted high school student, armed only with his passion for pursuing knowledge and advancing science? Or the government bureaucracy he was willing to take on all by himself?
Well, if that student happened to be Alexander Dimitrakakis, you’d have been smart to bet on the the high schooler.
Of course, he’s not just any high schooler.
To start off with, he is the only student in his school’s history to have ever amassed a perfect GPA, a record which compliments the perfect scores of 800 on his Physics, Chemistry and Math II SATs — which is all the more impressive when you realize he is not taking these tests in his native language, or coming from a school system organized to produce great scores on American exams.
Succeeding against odds like these, Alexander Dimitrakakis of Athens has become the first winner from Greece of the Next Generation Initiative’s Archimedes Award, a scholarship founded by Dr. Andrew Economos recognizing outstanding students of Hellenic descent who are pursuing studies and careers in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) related fields —and will be taking a four-year scholarship with him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in September, where he will be majoring in in Biomedical Engineering.
In his favor? What one of his teachers calls an “inexhaustible thirst for learning,” along with a passion for math and science which led him to win medals in one national competition after another in mathematics, physics, computer science and astronomy — and win offers of admission from MIT, Johns Hopkins University (Biomedical Engineering), Rice University, UCLA (Bioengineering at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science), and the University of California San Diego (NanoEngineering Department at the Jacobs School of Engineering).
But first, 17-year-old Alexander had to take on the Greek government.
When he entered 11th grade at Protipo Athinon, Alexander was intent on taking the kind of advanced courses which would allow him to apply to both engineering and medical schools — an option which had been previously allowed in the Greek educational system. Without warning, however, this option was suddenly removed by the Ministry of Education, depriving him, says Mr. Dimitrakakis, “of my dream to pursue an engineering approach to medicine.”
The hopes and dreams of other students had also dashed, but they had resigned themselves to accepting the Ministry’s decision without resistance. Mr. Dimitrakakis, however, was unwilling, in his words, to “passively accept this drastic change in my future plans, and… the prevailing notion that medicine had nothing in common with mathematics.”
So he sat down and wrote a letter to the Ministry, expressing his disappointment in their change in policy, as well as the general lack of options available in secondary education, while arguing for a more interdisciplinary curriculum, and the importance of mathematics in explaining the complexities of the medical sciences, recalling the words of Galileo that,
“the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.”
Undeterred by a vague response from the Ministry, his effort gained public support after his letter was published online, and then picked up by the Greek press. Much to his surprise, the Ministry reversed its decision, and he was allowed to select both accelerated Mathematics and Biology and pursue his original goal.
Although he is unsure what impact his letter had on the Ministry’s change of course, there is little doubt regarding his influence on his fellow students. One teacher after another testifies how his passion, in one class after another, became an example to his fellow students, inspiring them to study harder and achieve their goals.
In the words of one his teachers, Alexander is simply “the most charismatic student I have ever taught in my professorial career.”
He first discovered his passion for mathematics in eighth grade, when he “discovered the beauty of different theorems and the elegance of their proofs,” says Mr. Dimitrakakis. By ninth grade, his passion grew to include physics, when his experience studying for a national physics exam “revealed the infinite applications of this science.”
Since then, young Mr. Dimitrakakis has become particularly drawn to the applications of physics to medicine. His experience working as an assistant in Alexandra Hospital’s Breast Cancer Department for the past two years, says Mr. Dimitrakakis, has led him to his goal of “combining my passions for mathematics, physics and biology, and participating in cancer research in the future” — and to his own view of how those passions come together.
“I believe that mathematics, physics and engineering are an inherent part of biology. The human organism can be broken down to cells (biology), molecules (chemistry), atoms (physics) and subatomic particles (mathematics). Biomedical Engineering is the art of integrating these four sciences, with the prospect of yielding results that none could have had individually. This simple thought has preoccupied me in the recent years and has formulated my decision to engage in biomedical research.”
This may not sound surprising coming from a student who is the equivalent of Class Valedictorian, who ranked 13th out of all 11th graders in Greece (and, in previous years, 20th out of all 10th graders, and 19th out of all 9th graders) in the National Physics Contest, and who also took home the Silver and Bronze Medals in successive Hellenic Mathematical Olympiads.
But coming from a student who has excelled at classical piano since the age of six? Plays the Cretan lyra at festivals? Has performed with a traditional Cretan dance troupe? Played power forward/center well enough to make the Pre National Basketball Team in 9th and 10th grades? Earned a First Certificate (Grade A) in English from the University of Cambridge, and a Certificate of Proficiency in English from the University of Michigan, with Honors?
This and more, from a talented and gifted young man who already knows the importance of giving back — from his work volunteering at Vouliagmeni’s Church Orphanage four hours every week, 42 weeks out of 52 weeks a year for the past two years, tutoring children from grades 1 to 12 in Mathematics and English, to his work over the past four years for Kivotos, an organization that helps the abandoned children of Athens, and assisting the staff at a soup kitchen run by Klimaka, an organization that provides food and shelter for the homeless.
We can only be glad that Greece continues to produce young people of his calibre, and his character. We look forward to seeing where this newest Archimedes Award winner takes us. We can only guess at how far he will go — but we believe we can count on him to follow his passion.
“I am fascinated,” says Mr. Dimitrakakis, “by the thought that one day, perhaps sooner than we think, with the use of nano robots, we may cure cancer. They will be programmed to target only the cancerous cells and destroy them, leaving the healthy cells intact. I want to participate in the exploration of these minute wonders that will yield life-changing results. My admission to MIT came as a blessing for my future plans, since I will be able to do research in the growing field of nanobiotechnology through the brand new MIT.nano facility.”
“Now,” as the founder of the Archimedes Award, Dr. Andrew Economos said, “We can sit back and wait for the Nobel Prizes to roll in!” Bravo, Alexander!