I’m Tony Lai, an “ex-prodigy”: at the age of 18, I received my PhD in computer science from the University of Waterloo, as mentioned here.
I was born on March 16, 1972 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada to immigrants from Taiwan. My father had obtained his PhD in physics from the University of Chicago and taught at the University of Prince Edward Island. My mother had obtained her master’s degree in plant pathology from Utah State University, but opted to be a stay-at-home mother. My older brother Jim considers himself to be the slacker of the family for entering university at 16 and merely obtaining a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Waterloo.
According to my parents, I was quite odd when I was small. Before I was 3, I hardly spoke, and I didn’t want to learn from other people. I paid little attention when my mother read storybooks. Instead, I wanted to learn by myself, and I spent lots of time tracing letters and numbers or drawing the same kind of picture over and over again. My parents wondered if I was autistic. Not long after I turned 3, though, I spoke in complete sentences and showed talent in math. When I was 4, I could add and subtract. When I was 5, I could multiply. I could also read, and I often used a dictionary and thesaurus.
I started elementary school when I was 6. In grade 2, my school let me sit with grade 4 students for an individualized math class. By the end of grade 3, I had finished junior high school math at school, while at home, I taught myself to program a computer that my father had bought. My school let me skip grade 4, and, from grade 5, the school let me study high school math textbooks on my own during math class. When I was in grade 6, I finished studying high school math, and I entered and placed seventh in a provincial math competition for high school students.
To continue my math education, I took introductory calculus courses during the summer at UPEI. At the time, I had never thought about skipping all of junior and senior high school. But, after reading about 12-year-old college graduate Jay Luo, and after getting A+ marks in my courses, I decided to apply as a full-time university student, and I was accepted on probation. I compressed a four-year bachelor’s program into three years by taking many summer courses. When I graduated at 14, I was awarded the Governor General’s Gold Medal for having the best average mark among all graduates. (At the time, the gold medal was awarded to undergraduates, not graduate students.)
I chose the University of Waterloo to further my studies in computer science. Under the supervision of the late Prof. Derick Wood (who tragically passed away in 2010), I did research in the areas of data structures and algorithm design and analysis. I completed the requirements for my master’s degree in 12 months, and after that I completed my PhD in less than three years.
Afterward, I worked as a postdoctorate fellow under the late Dr. Kenji Koyama at the NTT Communication Science Labs in Kyoto, Japan. I later worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.
I currently work as a software developer in Toronto. I am married with one daughter who is in her first year of university.