Five years ago, Emil Kraft was so sick he couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without his mother’s help.
Today, he’s one of the smartest college math students in the world.
A senior at Eastern Washington University, Kraft got the top score earlier this year on a math test taken by 2,200 college students in 27 countries.
He topped students from the University of Chicago, known for its math program, and Fudan University in Shanghai, China.
Being the best is no big deal for this whiz.
“A lot of it comes if you are just plain dedicated,” said Kraft, 22.
That he is.
Not only is Kraft working his way through college, but he’s remodeling a house he bought in Cheney last year with money he saved from working several $5-an-hour jobs.
He’s a guitarist, and plays in a college band, Sleepy Weasel. He’s a member of EWU’s competitive math team, which was the best in the state of Washington last school year.
In 1990, his life came to a standstill.
Kraft contracted mononucleosis, and the viral disease spread to his liver, causing a form of hepatitis. He dropped out of high school for a year when he was a senior and spent months recovering.
“It almost killed him,” said his mother, Andrea Kraft, a librarian at North Central High School.
His body temperature climbed to 105 degrees, and stayed there for days, and his weight fell to 115 pounds on his 5-foot-7-inch frame.
That’s when he took up the guitar. He didn’t have enough energy to do anything else.
“There were days when all he could do was lie in bed and finger the guitar,” his mother said. “I think he’s felt he has to make up for lost time.”
He returned to Cheney High School in the fall of 1991, got his diploma and moved away from home because he wanted to be on his own. “I was 19 and I could,” Kraft said.
That summer, he worked two full-time jobs, and saved his money so he could reach his goal of buying a house.
“The summer of ‘92, all I ate was rice, beans and milk,” he said. He supplemented his diet with wild herbs such as lamb’s-quarter that he harvested from the forests around Cheney.
“It sounds crazy, but it kept me alive,” he said.
Now, Kraft is finishing his math degree at Eastern and plans to seek a job as an actuary in the investment banking industry. He said he could earn upwards of $100,000 a year as an experienced actuary.
His success on last spring’s worldwide math exam ought to help him achieve his goals.
The test was sponsored by the Casualty Actuarial Society and the Society of Actuaries, and is part of a series of tests required to become a certified actuary.
Actuaries keep track of mathematical models to predict the outcomes of economic and population trends, and are found in the insurance and investment businesses. They are skilled at calculus, linear algebra, statistics and probability.
“This is not a walk in the park,” said Assistant Professor Christian Hansen, who helped Kraft prepare for the test.
Hansen said even he would have trouble with the questions on the exam, and he teaches mathematics.
Kraft’s talent was rewarded last summer with a research grant from the National Science Foundation. He studied the curves of a doughnut shape called a torus.
What’s amazing is Kraft is succeeding despite being afflicted with a reading impairment known as dyslexia. He simply doesn’t see some printed words.
Much of his “reading” in college was done by audio tape.
Even so, he’s carrying a 3.99 grade average. A 4.0 is perfect.
“There’s a lot of fun in fulfilling your goals,” he said. “Lately, it’s been a lot of goal-oriented fun.”
Apparently because of his dyslexia, Kraft sees numbers as colors, and he uses that ability to visualize mathematical patterns.
His mother said he must have inherited his mathematical traits from his grandfather, who also was good at math.
“He’s had this gift since he was tiny,” Andrea Kraft said. “He amazes me.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo