Published: Oct. 31, 2022 By

Brian Tan is working to graduate with a double major in computer science and mathematics from the University of Colorado Boulder at 17 years old. He may be the youngest student to graduate from the Department of Computer Science since it was founded over 50 years ago. 

Tan taught himself calculus at 13, took the SAT at 14, got a GED at 16 in order to enter community college and got his associate's degree in computer science in the same year. He then transferred to CU Boulder to gain his bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics in the spring of 2023. 

He looks forward to starting his journey as a PhD student, also at CU Boulder, in the fall of 2023. He plans to focus on his passion, human-computer interaction (HCI). "Out of all the fields out there, I believe that HCI actually helps the general public the most," Tan said. 

Tan is young, but it is also his contributions to his classes and research groups that his collaborators and mentors remark on.

"Brian is not only a powerhouse of academic prowess and work ethic, but he also has great interpersonal skills and is a great member of any team he is part of," said Tan's Front Range Community College calculus II professor, Kenneth M. Monks. 

Once at CU Boulder, while managing a large course load, Tan also worked as a research assistant, first for Ute Herzfeld's algorithmic processing of ice data captured by satellites, and then for Professor Leanne Hirshfield’s SHINE Lab and for the NSF National AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming Lab. 

"Brian is incredibly motivated and willing to take on challenges that he encounters independently and thoroughly," said Rachel Dickler, a research scientist who worked with Tan on Student-AI Teaming. 

A Q+A with Brian Tan

What inspired you to come to CU Boulder?

CU Boulder has a great emphasis on cognitive science research in their graduate programs. I was very interested in their research and committed myself to this school. 

What about computer science interests you?

Almost everything taught in computer science is very interesting to me. The knowledge that we learn in CS makes me appreciate technology more and more considering that we are taught how complex and advanced the modern systems are. I am especially fond of artificial intelligence/machine learning and its application to brain-computer interfaces. 

What has one of your favorite experiences been?

In my academic journey, there have definitely been many obstacles I had to go through. There was a lot of planning and research that came to play years before I even started my journey. The moment I got confirmation that all my plans would work was the best experience for me. It was very rewarding as all the hard work I put in will pay off. 

You are quite young to be graduating from undergraduate education. What or who has helped you succeed as an undergraduate student?

There were so many people that helped me in all aspects. Having a close relationship with my parents and them helping me out in all the ways they can is a huge part of my success. Along with that, there are many advisors that have been so helpful, such as Joy Knutsen, Cole Gladhart, John Finney and more. I definitely would not have succeeded if I was on this journey all alone. 

What are your plans after graduating from undergraduate education?

I am planning to continue my studies into a PhD program under Dr. Leanne Hirshfield with the SHINE Lab. SHINE Lab does very exciting research in the field of human-computer interaction and neuroscience. I am very excited to be doing more work with SHINE Lab. With that, I am also aiming to be graduating my PhD by 21 which will make me the youngest PhD graduate in my home country, Indonesia. 

What advice would you give to another younger student considering going to college early? Would you recommend it?

Going to college early is definitely going to give you a hard time. You have to endure knowledge that is far beyond what you are supposed to learn now. It is going to be hard, but it will be worth every ounce of hard work you put into it. I would definitely recommend anyone to give it a shot.