An Indian pupil in Abu Dhabi, who has overcome all the odds to secure admission to 16 world-renowned universities, will head to California’s Stanford University in September.
Akio Shirali, a final-year pupil at the British School Al Khubairat, suffers from a rare health condition, a combination of coeliac disease and alopecia universalis. He was 9 when he was diagnosed with the condition and dreams of finding a cure.
Coeliac disease is a digestive and autoimmune disorder that can damage the small intestine, while alopecia universalis is a medical condition involving the loss of all body hair, including eyebrows.
Shirali, 18, was offered places at 13 leading universities in the US, including Stanford, Caltech, Yale, University of California Berkley, Georgia Tech, and Carnegie Mellon.
He also secured places at Imperial College London, University College London, and the University of Warwick in the UK.
Shirali is set to pursue a bachelor’s degree with a focus on genetics and biology, and a double degree in economics, with a specialisation in healthcare economics.
“Getting to college is not something that defines me and is not my end goal,” Shirali said.
“I want to cure coeliac disease, which is one of my big goals in life; to make sure that no one else, no other child, feels the way I did.
“I have a bit of hair now, but back then I was completely bald and children are not the kindest. They don’t understand it and if there’s something they do not understand, they’re going to make fun of it.
“As a nine-year-old, my goal was just to be a good human and be curious, but astrophysics was my big passion and so was biology and paleontology.
“I got into Stanford University on April 1 at 3am. I went crazy and woke my parents up. My mum’s first reaction, the first words out of her mouth were, ‘are you sure they have not made a mistake?'”
The teenager has a message for parents.
“Give your child the chance to explore whatever they want to, whether it’s football, science, maths, photography, or gaming; help them take it to a higher level,” Shirali said.
“A lot of the time, we as children have these big ideas; a child’s curiosity is amazing. We can take these ideas to endless levels, so trust your child.
“Age does not matter. It’s about the good that you can do for others. And if you can do that, even children can make a big difference.”
Shirali said his parents were constant sources of encouragement throughout his education.
“Once for my birthday (in 2020), I asked them to pay money to enrol me on a course,” he said. “If a child asks you for $8,000 for their birthday, you think he is going to buy a fancy computer, et cetera. I wanted to do this course and they were willing to fund it. They are always willing to allow me to educate myself.”
Shirali has already done a few college courses in fundamentals of bioinformatics, sequencing, introduction to quantitative modelling, and biology.
He competed in Genes in Space, a space exploration competition in 2017, sponsored by Boeing, Nasa, miniPCR, and the UAE Space Agency. His team were runners-up at national level.
Shirali is also very adventurous.
“I want to explore,” he said. “One of my goals is to ride my bicycle across the US. The other goal is to travel to all countries on the planet. I want to help as many people as I can. That’s my goal in life.”
The teenager is a cycling enthusiast and has completed the UAE Coast to Coast Challenge, a route that takes you from the west coast of the country to the east.
He completed the winter version of the 235-kilometre event in seven hours.
Gergana Hutchinson, university and careers adviser at Shirali’s school, said: “When I read his essays for the first time, I could see that all of these things that he’s talked about early on, about curiosity and his passion, were teaming up in his essays. And I knew that he was a candidate who was going to stand out for [top] universities.
“Akio’s success is a result of his determination, dedication, outstanding grades, his passion for research and enthusiasm to persist and persevere despite setbacks. He has proved this time and again with his research, as well as in his personal life, and it is this quality that sets him apart and makes him truly inspirational.
“In his essays, he talked about all of the failures and all the hardships that he’s been through, which is another key point for all the universities.
“They want to know that people are prepared to fail, they want to know that people are going to be curious that they’re going to persevere.”
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Updated: May 22, 2022, 3:59 AM