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A passion for problem-solving: West Fargo 14-year-old studying advanced math at NDSU

WEST FARGO -- Seljon Akhmedli sometimes has difficulty with geometry problems. But one way or another, the soon-to-be sophomore at West Fargo's Sheyenne High School usually finds a way to work through them.

Seljon Akhmedli, 14, seen Friday, June 8, at North Dakota State University, recently completed two calculus courses there at the top of her class. Michael Vosburg / The Pioneer
Seljon Akhmedli, 14, seen Friday, June 8, at North Dakota State University, recently completed two calculus courses there at the top of her class. Michael Vosburg / The Pioneer
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WEST FARGO - Seljon Akhmedli sometimes has difficulty with geometry problems. But one way or another, the soon-to-be sophomore at West Fargo's Sheyenne High School usually finds a way to work through them.

She likely gained that ability from her father, Azer Akhmedov, a math professor at North Dakota State University.

At just 14 years old, Akhmedli has already taken calculus classes at NDSU. She'll take several more during the coming school year, possibly enough that she could earn a math degree by the time she graduates from high school.

"Having a family that's been good in mathematics and has cared about their education, I think that encourages me to do better," Akhmedli said. "When you work on this problem for quite some time and then you figure out the solution, I really like that feeling."

'I feel very fortunate'

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Akhmedov never dreamed he would one day be living in the U.S. with a family.

He grew up in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan when it was a part of the Soviet Union. His mom and uncle were math teachers and his father was a biologist. As a teenager, he planned to study in Moscow.

But then the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, and Akhmedov said people began living in survival mode.

Many of his peers abandoned their education and teased him for for spending time studying while everyone else was just trying to get by.

"Sometimes you wouldn't even find bread in the store," Akhmedov said. "You start to think about the future, and there is no future."

But Akhmedov continued to go to the library, spending days at a time studying math. He said there were no signs it would pay off one day, but he had a sense math would be his future.

"It crushed me a emotionally, but I had to find a way to stand," Akhmedov said. "I feel very fortunate."

Akhmedov earned his undergraduate degree in the Soviet Union before becoming one of five students accepted to a doctoral mathematics program at Yale University in 1998.

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"We went through years of emotional hardship because there was no encouragement from almost no one," Akhmedov said. "Even our parents were thinking we wouldn't go anywhere. But life in the U.S. is so much better. Any talent is encouraged and there's opportunities. But that suffering was useful. We endured it and you turn it into something good for yourself."

Akhmedov has been teaching math for 19 years. He was a researcher at the University of California in Santa Barbara before settling in Fargo with his wife to raise a family.

Akhmedli finds her father's life story fascinating.

"He pursued his dream of being a mathematician," Akhmedli said. "I think that's pretty cool."

A shared passion

Akhmedli's sixth-grade teacher was the first to notice math came easy for her. She put her in an advanced seventh grade class comparable to eighth grade. She quickly moved through all of the classes, finishing high school math completely last year.

Akhmedli was admitted as an early entry program student at NDSU and took Calculus 1 last fall and Calculus 2 last spring. She finished among the top students with an A. She plans to take courses at the 200 level this coming school year.

"Sometimes that can be a little bit more exhausting, but I think it's just a really fun experience at the same time," Akhmedli said. "I think some people think I'm an actual college student, just a little short."

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Akhmedli wants to be a biochemist, biophysicist or a mathematician when she grows up. And like her father, she wants to go to Yale.

"I just want to be sure of what I want to be when I grow up and have a good career and a good job and get into a good university," Akhmedli said.

Akhmedov said his daughter has already exceeded his expectations and knows more than he did at her age.

"Excelling in something isn't always fun," Akhmedov said. "I just challenge her."

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