Professor Gets the Best and the Brightest Off to an Early Start

Times Staff Writer

His title is professor of mechanical aerospace and nuclear engineering at UCLA, but Michel A. Melkanoff’s passion is finding and guiding the very young, very bright students who belong in a university setting.

Melkanoff, director of UCLA’s Manufacturing Engineering Program, is the man credited with inspiring the creation of the university’s Early College Admission Pilot Program. The program identifies and enrolls students who have exhausted the educational resources available to them in junior high or high school and can function at a university.

For many years, gifted high school students were allowed to take courses at UCLA but were not allowed to enroll as full-time students.

Rae Lee Siporin, UCLA dean of undergraduate admissions, said the Early College Admission Pilot Program evolved from a conversation she and Melkanoff had three or four years ago.

“He wanted to explore the possibility of making UCLA a center for very bright kids,” she said. Shortly thereafter, an advisory committee composed of UCLA faculty members from a variety of fields and representatives of the Los Angeles, Santa Monica-Malibu and Beverly Hills school districts, was established.


‘Social Maturity’

Today, applicants are interviewed by an admissions representative and two UCLA faculty members. They also take the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Siporin said.

“We are talking about students who are very, very bright who can compete in a university and can do it without a lot of support,” Siporin said. “These are kids who have reached a certain social maturity.”

“We are not bringing in huge numbers. We are bringing in maybe one or two a year and most are entering mathematics or computers.

“If I had someone coming in directly to me, I would send them to Melkanoff because of his interest and continuing experience.”

Melkanoff, 63, said his involvement with gifted youngsters dates back more than 30 years. One day, he was working on a problem at UCLA’s computer center when a group of high school youngsters dropped in for a visit.

“It was an eye-opening event,” Melkanoff said. “There was a young man . . . gangling, tall. He asked me what kind of problem I was doing. I told him it was a nuclear physics problem. I was impressed by his interest and knowledge. He had three years to go in high school.”

That student was George Chapline. Now 44, he is a physicist at Berkeley’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He is the laboratory’s principal scientist working on the X-ray laser, which he invented. In 1983 he won the Lawrence Prize for his invention, one of five prizes awarded annually by the U.S. Department of Energy, he said.

Chapline said he was 13 years old and just entering Beverly Hills High School when he met Melkanoff. Through Melkanoff’s intervention, Chapline came to the attention of David Saxon, then a UCLA professor of physics who would become president of the University of California and MIT. Saxon and Melkanoff convinced the university admissions department and Beverly Hills High School that Chapline belonged at UCLA.

“In the middle of my sophomore year I just stopped going to high school and in February, 1958, entered UCLA. I graduated in 3 1/2 years,” Chapline said.

Although he had some difficulty with “social interactions” for the first year and a half at UCLA, Chapline said it was the right move for him. He went on to earn his master’s degree at UCLA and and his Ph.D. at Caltech in Pasadena.

Computer Wizard

In 1980, Melkanoff was instrumental in admitting Russian-born Eugene Volokh, a computer wizard who began taking UCLA Extension courses in math and calculus at age 9 and entered Beverly Hills High School at age 10. In 1980, at 12, he enrolled as a sophomore at UCLA. He graduated at 15.

Volokh and his mother, Anne, credit Melkanoff with opening the doors at UCLA. Anne Volokh said she and her husband, Vladimir, knew their son was ready for the university, but it was Melkanoff’s support that helped him gain admittance.

Volokh, who began working for commercial computer firms while he was still in high school, is vice president and co-founder of the family’s computer software business.

Last year, after 14-year-old Revital Elitzur had exhausted all the educational resources at Camarillo High School, she and her parents inquired about admission to UCLA. She was referred to Melkanoff.

Melkanoff interviewed the Israeli-born Elitzur and recommended that she enter UCLA’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. As he does with all his young students, he helped her select her classes and made certain that her instructors were aware of her special needs. Elitzur has made the dean’s honors list each of the three quarters she has attended UCLA. At age 15, she is a sophomore. In her spare time, she tutors other college students.

Because of UCLA’s Early College Admission Pilot Program, it was a much simpler matter to get Elitzur into the university than it was when Chapline entered 28 years ago, Melkanoff said.

Two Other Programs

But he is concerned about the other super-bright students who should be at UCLA or other universities and have not been identified.

Siporin said she knows of only two other colleges with similar programs: California State University, Los Angeles, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“Locating (bright young students) is very difficult,” Melkanoff said. “Sometimes teachers don’t realize what they have. Other times, teachers recognize the talent, but don’t know what to do. When you find them, the next step is to get them into the right teaching environment, whether it be high school or the university.”

Melkanoff said he fears that some of the brightest young minds in this country may be “slipping through the cracks” of the educational system.

“I believe that these very gifted youngsters are the major resource to the country and the world,” he said. “I would like to have a national campaign . . . a national search in which every elementary school and high school looks (for the super-bright) and where every university works with them.”

UCLA’s schools of education and psychology could play a significant role in this research, he said. “We could have a laboratory for (the gifted students). See what happens to them, take care of them. . . . I can’t think of a project that would cost as little money and get such returns.”

Melkanoff, who lives in Hancock Park and has one daughter, was born in the Soviet Union. His family moved to France in 1938, then to the United States. He attended New York University and UCLA, where he received his Ph.D. in physics in 1955.

He founded the university’s computer science department and was its first chairman. For the past six years he has been with UCLA’s Manufacturing Engineering Program, which he now directs.