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Danville Whiz-Kid known for winning National Spelling Bee, Math and Intel Science contests is headed to University of Cambridge

By Theresa Harrington
Monday, February 23rd, 2015 at 12:45 pm in Danville, Education.


For about a decade, journalists and editors at this newspaper have reported that Danville resident Evan O’Dorney was a scholar of extraordinary brilliance who appeared destined for greatness.

And this week, I received a news release from the University of Cambridge that confirms what people have said about him since he was a child — and even goes further — by calling him “a once-in-a-century talent.”

The former spelling bee, math and science competition champ has earned a prestigious Churchill Scholarship to attend the University of Cambridge for a year of Master’s study in pure mathematics. He will “solidify his foundations before pursuing a Ph.D. in arithmetic geometry,” according to the news release. “He looks forward to a career teaching and researching mathematics.”

We first reported about O’Dorney 10 years ago when he placed third in the Contra Costa County spelling bee as a 10-year-old third-grader, beating out more than 100 other top spellers who were significantly older. The following three years, O’Dorney aced the county bee and represented Contra Costa in the Scripps National Bee, which he won at age 13 in 2007.

At the time, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement: “Evan is a great example to all students that if you study hard, you can accomplish anything.”

O’Dorney met President George W. Bush and impressed the hosts on “Good Morning America” when he correctly spelled “radicchio” while juggling three balls. Also a pianist, O’Dorney was delighted when ABC-TV aired a prerecorded segment about him that featured a piano concerto he wrote.

A home-schooled whiz-kid who received math instruction through UC Berkeley, O’Dorney went onto win the American Mathematical Society’s “Who Wants to be a Mathematician?” competition at age 16 in 2010, after pointing out a mathematical error in a question he was asked.

The following year, at age 17, he won the Intel Science Talent Search, which included a $100,000 prize. For his project, O’Dorney solved a complex math problem involving the square root of numbers.

After this, he met President Barack Obama. He had chatted with Obama on the phone the previous year after winning the mathematician contest.

O’Dorney was also a four-time medalist in the International Math Olympiad.

“For four years now, Danville teenager Evan O’Dorney has amazed us,” an editorial in this newspaper said. “Simply put, the guy is brilliant. Seriously, he’s a genius.”

As he headed to Harvard, this newspaper wrote: “He clearly has a natural gift that he can use to make a very significant contribution to society. We congratulate him and wish him the best of luck.”

We didn’t hear anything else about him until we learned that his intellectual prowess is now recognized in the United Kingdom. The Cambridge news release, however, reveals that O’Dorney continued to earn accolades during his undergraduate studies.

He expanded his Intel Science project for publication, completed two National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates, and won several Harvard academic prizes, as well as the Putnam Mathematic Competition three years in a row. He now grades the US Math Olympiad and trains young mathematicians for it.

O’Dorney also composes and performs music, and is part of a choir specializing in Renaissance music.

Churchill Scholarships go to those who have “a capacity to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the sciences, engineering or mathematics by pursuing original, creative work at an advanced level … ” according to the website. A professor who taught a graduate-level class O’Dorney took as a Harvard freshman said, “He was by far the best student in the class, but even saying that doesn’t do him justice; the fact is, at many turns it was clear he knew the material better than I did.”

Others said: “ … A once-in-a-century talent,” and, “I think that Evan is going to be a mathematical leader in his generation.”

He’s on his way.

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3 Responses to “Danville Whiz-Kid known for winning National Spelling Bee, Math and Intel Science contests is headed to University of Cambridge”

  1. Deb Robinson Says:

    What an amazing young man. I hope the newspaper keeps us informed on his future accomplishments. I’m always a bit suspicious when a homeschooler does so well in a competition like the spelling bee. Did they abandon all other studies to memorize a dictionary? Can they do well in a real school setting? But this fellow is the real deal. He wowed them at a Harvard, too, and won other very prestigious awards. I bow down before his awesome genius! Congratulations, Mr. O’Dorney!

  2. k. saint Says:

    Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. tmharrington Says:

    You’re welcome!

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