Anne Fayolle has had it up to here with ‘youngest this, youngest that.’
“I read those stories occasionally and they make me cringe,” said Fayolle, 18.
But facts, obstinately, are facts: With a Bachelor of Science in Honours Math with a Minor in Computer Science, the teenager is indeed the youngest person to graduate from McGill in 2020.
But how does a French-born student who arrived in Canada at the age of 9, land at McGill at 15? Her way was simple: be better and quicker than her classmates, especially at math. Also, be more easily bored.
“I need to go faster to enjoy the process of learning”
Actually, a couple of other factors came into play, Fayolle added. The curriculum in France being somewhat more advanced, it allowed her to combine two grades into one – twice. Quite a vault for someone so young.
Oddly, one of her most vivid memories is that she stubbornly did not learn the multiplication table, a sing-songy mnemonic device that French pupils are taught at a very young age.
“But I had good grades – and I was incredibly bored in class.”
One other thing was a constant at the private French-language Collège International Marie de France on Queen Mary Rd. that she attended: “Being younger than my classmates did not feel like something special,” Fayolle said. “It did not mean I was different. It was something that was perfectly normal. But I need to go faster to enjoy the process of learning. So maybe I went faster.”
Her mother is also a math teacher, but it would be wrong to jump to the automatic conclusion, said Fayolle.
“She did make me curious about math, but she certainly did not talk me into it. It was never forced.”
In fact, her brother and two sisters don’t like math and are not particularly good at it.
With all the ‘youngest’ stuff dealt with, Fayolle is keen to note that her interests have always been and remain many and varied. That isn’t always the case with wunderkinds.
History, for instance, is one of her interests; and she took courses in philosophy at the Université de Montréal – no exclusive math blinkers for her.
Still, mathematics is her passion.
“I want to be a math professor,” said Fayolle.
A passion for number theory
“I’ve had a great time at McGill, and the math program here was more fitted to what I want to do: research on number theory. I really enjoyed that.”
For the fall term, she debated between going to Oxford University, where she was accepted, and Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, but in the end chose the EPFL. That institution’s master’s program (on number theory) allows students to do more than one project per semester rather than stay on one subject the entire period, which is something she sought.
Whether physical classes will resume in September is not known yet, but the school has already conducted in-person exams and will continue to do so, she added.
Talented but understated, says prof
McGill math Prof. Michael Lipnowski, Fayolle’s research supervisor, said that at the outset of a summer project last year, she asked him if there would be a more advanced reading program – the department has an established list of required reading before a research project is undertaken.
“(The reading material) affects the level of difficulty of a research project,” said Lipnowski, “so that gave me a sense of the kind of student I was dealing with.”
“With less talented students, you give them a (well-defined) problem. I knew I could give her more open-ended assignments. She was quite mature.”
Lipnowski did not know her age until he saw her transcript of school grades that Fayolle included when she asked him to write a letter of recommendation to the two institutions for graduate studies.
Working with her was a pleasant experience, he said.
“She’s talented, but also a very nice person – shy, understated in terms of personality.”