GLEN ELLYN, Ill. — When you ask Adam Kalinich what about math he finds most riveting, he takes a long pause, then launches into an intense explanation about how math is much more than numbers — it's about ideas.
"I love the thinking part the most, where you're puzzling about 'How does this fit in what I know? How can I make this work?" said Adam, 17, a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora.
"I think that there are important problems in math, and it's beautiful that such complexity arises from simple questions, that such important ideas can be wrapped up with mathematical statements."
The Glen Ellyn native is the kind of math student instructors dream about — always hungry for more, and unfailingly excited about the possibilities that lay ahead.
It's that drive that's landed Adam among 40 high school seniors named finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search 2012, the nation's most prestigious pre-college science competition. A second finalist from Illinois is Jordan Saul Cotler, of Northbrook, a senior at Glenbrook North High School.
Finalists will gather in Washington, D.C. March 8-13 to compete for $630,000 in prizes. The top finisher will receive $100,000 from the Intel Foundation.
Adam was nominated as a result of his research, "Flipping the Winner of a Poset Game," which was published in the journal Information Processing Letters. He wrote the paper last year under the guidance of Lance Fortnow, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering.
Publishing such a research paper would have been a fantastic achievement for an undergraduate student — let alone for a high schooler, Fortnow said.
"Adam studied at a certain class of games called 'poset' or 'partially ordered set games.' He found a way to take one of these games and convert it into another game where the other person wins," Fortnow said, explaining he had given Adam an efficient computation problem that didn't required advanced mathematics, but that nevertheless had been unsolved for a while.
"He came out with the entire proof. The nice thing about his proof was really that it was not the way it was expected to happen. I expected simple manipulation, but I saw this out-of-the box thinking you don't even see often in grad students."
Stepping onto Northwestern's campus was intimidating at first, Adam says.
"I had a desk in a room with 12 grad students. You have this feeling that 'This is beyond me, I can't do this," he said. "You have to work past that and focus."
Adam reads books about topology and real and complex analysis as if they were novels, said IMSA math teacher Steve Condie, who also coaches Adam on the Chicago Area All-Star Math Team.
"Adam has such a passion for mathematics. He competed on the team for four years straight, this will be his fifth year, and he's skipping graduation to be able to compete," Condie said.
Adam started off as a verbally precocious child who read on his own at about age 3, said his mother, Gail Kalinich. She first got an inkling about his talent for math when he was in the first grade and his teachers suggested he skip a grade in math.
"A couple of years later, the gifted (students') teacher started pulling him and another student to teach alone for an hour. He just developed a strong love for math," said Gail who, along with her husband, Kevin, is an attorney.
Adam also has a penchant for teaching math. After starting the math team at Hadley Junior High School in Glen Ellyn, he became its coach when he was in high school. Among the students he coached is IMSA sophomore Kevin Hi, 15, of Glen Ellyn, who said Adam was instrumental in opening his eyes to the beauty of math.
"Adam was one of the first people to really reveal that other side of math, which was awesome," said Kevin, now the assistant coach for the Hadley math team. "He's been a really good (role) model. He didn't need to spend all that time helping me, but he did."
Adam also inspired his younger sister, Chaney, to follow in his footsteps. She is now a member of Glenbard West's math team, and has applied to IMSA.
Last June, Adam and his family traveled to Cambodia where he taught competition math to local students, something he found challenging because of the language barrier, he said.
Far from being single-tracked, Adam has a variety of interests, including history and science fiction.
"I love going through history and finding stories in there. For every historical story that people have grabbed and made into a movie like 'Braveheart,' there are 10 more out there that people have never heard about," he said.
Adam is waiting for responses to his college applications, but declined to say which was his top choice as not to jeopardize his standing with any of them.
"I'm sure he'll get into a place like MIT or some other great school," Northwestern's Fortnow said. "Hopefully he'll go to graduate school, find the right person to work with and have a great future. He really has the potential for it."
Adam wants to study math and computer science, and is pretty sure he'll get a Ph.D., because he loves the process of researching and discovering new things, but also wants to keep teaching others.
"I think it's not a good thing to be the smartest person where you are. If you're the biggest fish, then you're not learning as much as you could be," he said.
Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com