As a high school senior at Baltimore City College in 1989, Bala Ambati had some rather lofty goals, telling the yearbook he aspired "to become a doctor, win the Nobel Prize and help humanity." By then Ambati already stood apart from his 12th grade-classmates: He was 11 years old.
After graduating from City, Ambati's exceptional arc continued. It took him only two years to polish off a biology degree at New York University. At 13, he slowed down, taking the usual four years to earn a medical degree from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
He became Dr. Ambati in 1995 — just shy of his 18th birthday. That feat landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records as the planet's youngest doctor, a distinction he still holds. His path from pre-pubescent high schooler to real-life Doogie Howser attracted a steady stream of news coverage.
Now 36, Ambati is an ophthalmologist and tenured professor at the University of Utah, where he performs a range of eye surgeries and conducts research that has won acclaim. Along the way he has picked up both a doctorate and an MBA.
He's been a doctor more than half his life, and he may have achieved another high school goal. Each year he devotes several weeks to charity, doing eye operations in places like Ghana, Panama and India through a nonprofit group called Orbis. During a "tough time" in his life two years ago, he donated a kidney to a stranger, a 16-year-old farm boy in Idaho.
But bring up that third goal — a Nobel — and he suggests it's not the priority it once was.
"My research is focused on helping people see and regain vision," he said in a recent interview. "Whether that wins whatever prize in the future, I just want to be able to help as many people see as I can."
He added: "My favorite part of the week is when I take the patch off somebody's eye after taking a cataract out or doing whatever surgery. You see them smile. That makes everything worthwhile."
His boss at Utah, Dr. Randall Olson, praised Ambati's clinical acumen and research successes. "There's nothing he touches that he doesn't pursue with incredible excellence," said Olson, chairman of Utah's department of ophthalmology and CEO of the John A. Moran Eye Center, where Ambati has worked since 2008.
Olson noted that Ambati was lead author of a study that unlocked the mystery of why a healthy cornea remains free of blood vessels — a discovery called a top cell "signaling" breakthrough of 2006 by the journal Science. Ambati has since built on that vascular research, which Olson said has implications for treating diabetes and possibly other ailments such as heart disease and stroke.
"It's a very, very important basic breakthrough," Olson said. "He could potentially get a Nobel Prize down the road, I think."
Yet he said Ambati has had a personal "price to pay" for his remarkable trajectory. Because he didn't have a typical childhood, Olson said, he's had to work harder at social interactions: "He had a desire to understand and a desire to be insightful. That doesn't always happen with child prodigies."
Olson said Ambati learned some lessons the hard way. During a residency at Harvard, a more senior scientist wanted to take top credit for research that he principally had done, and Ambati pushed back, successfully arguing that his own name should go first on the study.
Ambati was right in principle, Olson said, but he upset people by bucking an entrenched system. Ambati said he doesn't recall the episode but agreed he's much better now at personal diplomacy.
Born in India, Ambati was 3 when his parents took him and his older brother to the United States. Starting when the boys were a few months old, their parents — an industrial engineer and an educator — frequently read and counted to them, according to a 1988 Baltimore Sun article. As the boys grew older, both parents stressed the joy of learning while setting high expectations.
Ambati's brother, Jayakrishna, blazed the trail. At 17 he graduated from the Johns Hopkins University with an electrical engineering degree, the university says, and he also went on to become an ophthalmologist.
Bala, short for Balamurali, raced even faster through school. Weeks into first grade, he skipped to second. From then on he completed two grades per year. When the family moved to Baltimore, 9-year-old Bala enrolled in seventh grade at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School.
The next year he began high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute but switched to the liberal arts-leaning City because his parents were dissatisfied with Poly. Former City biology teacher Diane Lashinsky recalls Ambati as hard-working and driven — qualities she also saw in his father.
"Honestly, he wasn't actually a stellar student at the time," said Lashinsky, now a school principal in Washington State. But she remembered Ambati methodically researching an evolution project in just a weekend.
Lashinsky's most vivid memory of Ambati is of the time his hair caught fire during a lab experiment and she had to snip off the singed bits. To her it showed that he was still a kid, so dazzled that he forgot to follow precautions.
Ambati laughed at the episode. To him the lesson was: "Don't give a 10-year-old a Bunsen burner."
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He said high school was a happy time. Despite being picked on somewhat, he made friends and had a spot on City's "It's Academic" quiz show team. Overall, he said, he has no regrets about his path and never felt pushed by his parents to do anything he didn't want to do.
"I don't think I missed out on anything important," he said. "I didn't go to prom, I didn't smoke pot in college. But I had really good relationships with friends and professors. … What I gained really is far and away much more than what I could have lost."
Today he said he has a good work-life balance, enjoying movies and hikes in the mountains around Salt Lake City. Unmarried, he said he's still waiting to meet "the right girl."
His father, Ambati Rao, now retired and living in Georgia with his wife, Gomatha, echoed his son's largely positive recollections.
"We were his friends — therefore he did not miss that," he said. "We used to play ball with him. We used to go to restaurants, libraries, everything. We did not make him feel he's missing anything."
But while his father said Ambati has been successful, he added: "I can't say very successful. … Maybe parents expect more." He, for one, still hopes to see his son achieve that other high school goal: a Nobel Prize.