In his first year of secondary school, Tommy Chau Chun-wang was already studying Form Four-level physics, chemistry and biology, as well as Form Five-level mathematics. Now, at the age of 17, Tommy has been admitted to one of the world’s top universities – the University of Oxford, in Britain, on a full scholarship – for a four-year programme in Master of Physics.
Does this child prodigy’s story sound a bit familiar? In some ways, Tommy is like the Hong Kong version of young Sheldon Cooper, a fictional character from the popular American comedy series Young Sheldon, who later became a prominent theoretical physicist.
When the teenager, who has an intelligent quotient of 154 (the average is 90 to 110), heard about this comparison, he immediately laughs it off, saying, “No, no, no, I’m not as capable as him.”
He does share a similarity with the character though – his love for science and mathematics that was developed at a young age. Tommy says he has always been very curious about his surroundings, and would raise many questions on the origins and logic behind things.
“My sense of curiosity is what makes me want to become a scientist in the future,” he says.
After skipping Primary Six, Tommy was admitted to St Margaret’s Co-educational English Secondary and Primary School, where he began taking senior form classes for science-related subjects. In his free time, Tommy would bury himself in science-related books, which helped him pick up the senior secondary curriculum quickly.
While Tommy will pursue physics at university, he says his favourite science subject used to be chemistry. But since he explored more physics problems when he represented Hong Kong at the International Olympiad of Metropolises (IOM), he decided to concentrate on one discipline instead. His dedication paid off last year, when he won a gold medal in physics at the IOM held in Moscow, Russia.
Since Tommy was in Form Two, he had been following the Dual Programme offered by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), which provides four levels of courses to gifted secondary school students. Under the programme, they are able to take some undergraduate courses alongside their regular secondary school classes. By the end of this academic year, the Form Five student had completed 14 courses with a GPA of 3.8 (the highest score is 4.3).
“It wasn’t too difficult for me to study secondary and university curriculum at the same time, because I had finished quite a lot of senior secondary classes a few years ago,” Tommy says.
As the first secondary school student in Hong Kong to have completed so many undergraduate courses, Tommy has been exempted from taking the HKDSE, with Oxford offering him a place based on his result at HKUST. He also earned a full scholarship from the D. H. Chen Foundation amounting to HK$2.1 million that will cover his school fees and daily expenses.
The whiz-kid says he was able to gain a place at Oxford thanks to Project Access Hong Kong, which was founded in 2015 by several members of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education. As a fellow member of the academy, Tommy hopes he can help other underprivileged students like him enter top universities in Britain.
“Without the full scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to study [at Oxford], because that would be a huge financial burden on my family,” he says. “I think what they’re doing at Project Access is very meaningful and I want to give back to society, too.”
As he starts a new chapter in his life in Britain in September, Tommy says he is ready to be immersed in the new learning environment and be open to fresh concepts and ideas. When asked if he would miss Hong Kong, the teenager says he can already imagine some lonely nights in his dorm. “I know I will live in a single room, so I guess I will feel quite lonely at night, especially because there aren’t much street lights there,” he says. “I will definitely miss my parents the most.”
Over the years, Tommy has been told many times that he is moving too fast, and the path he has chosen is not the most ideal for his development. But he says such criticism will not stop him from being focused and determined as he pursues his dream of becoming one of the world’s leading scientists.
And his advice for Hong Kong’s teenagers? “Do what you think is right for yourself and press on no matter what,” he says. “Don’t give up halfway through.”