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For Queens junior, path to neuroscience driven by passion

Walee Ahmed says he is motivated by a love of learning.

The claim might sound like a stretch coming from a 18-year-old high school student in the midst of preparing for SAT subject tests and Advanced Placement courses. But Ahmed has interests that span far beyond the classroom.

This summer, Ahmed has his sights set on launching a technology blog that focuses on open-source programming. “Look at Firefox, where you had a ton of people working because they had passion,” he said, referring to the popular open-source web browser. “If you work for passion, it adds another level of sincerity to what you are doing.”

Ahmed’s passion has taken him to the top of his class at Hillcrest High School in Queens, where he will be a senior — taking four AP courses — in September. New Visions, the network that works with Hillcrest, recognized Ahmed by supporting his bid for the prestigious Annenberg Scholarship, which will provide a full ride to the college of his choice. (Last year’s winner, Karina Melendez, is headed to Columbia University this fall.)

Ahmed attributes his success in part to a habit of hard work that he learned in British-style schools in Bangladesh, where he lived until 2009. But in conversation it becomes immediately clear that Ahmed is motivated, above all else, by a wide-ranging curiosity.

“He’s not typical,” said Steve Duch, Hillcrest’s principal. “He’s in one of our pre-med communities, where kids feel that they are going to become doctors, but he is smart enough to realize that he has many other options.”

Speaking in the living room of his family’s apartment in Jamaica, Queens, Ahmed skipped effortlessly across such diverse topics as Napoleon’s conquest of Europe (“He was just one guy, it’s so incredible to think about”) and the dot-com stock bubble of the late 1990s (“It’s amazing that human psychology dictates the whole market”). He wants to become a neurosurgeon, but he also would like to start a band in the vein of Megadeth.

After Ahmed’s family moved to the United States, primarily for the wealth of college opportunities here, the teen was initially surprised by how much more he had learned in his Bangladesh school. “I started studying physics and chemistry and bio in sixth grade there. Here they begin, I think, in ninth grade,” he said. “And the things I learned in sixth and seventh grade there, I don’t know if they ever teach in my high school.”

Ahmed’s parents, Mahmud and Faizun, both have master’s degrees — his mother in economics, his father, in sociology — and Ahmed says their achievements in Bangladesh reflected intense social pressure to succeed.

“Because they came so far, they expect their children to do even better,” Ahmed says. “But my expectation is different from theirs. They are more into what you need to do, what the right things will be to succeed. I’m more into pursuing knowledge.”

This claim does not come off as a boast, but as a description of Ahmed’s particular way of accumulating information. As he puts it: “I look into stuff. That’s a big thing for me. It’s fun.” He described following a particular spark (re-programming an iPad, say, or a fight between two hard-rock guitarists) through a trail of blogs and websites.

His most consistent interest can be characterized as a double major of computer science and neurobiology. It began by observing a cousin, three years younger than Ahmed and living in Great Britain, who has autism.

Thinking about her inability to communicate her thoughts, Ahmed turned to the internet. “I was reading in a blog how we can take information from the brain but not get it into the brain,” he says. He found both a goal, to apply some of the ideas of data-transference from computer science to the human brain, and a field of study that just might satisfy his curiosity.

“For me, if I do something for too long, then it kind of gets boring,” he said. “One of the main reasons I want to do neuroscience is that we don’t know anything. So there is that feeling of suspense.”

Ahmed is also a member of his school’s National Honor Society, volunteers at at a medical center, and was an active member of the chess club until it was dissolved and converted into a ping pong club.

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