SALT LAKE CITY – Dr. Bala Ambati at the John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah still holds a world record no current doctor can hope to touch, because they can’t go back in time. He was only 17 years old when he earned his M.D., the youngest person ever.
That was half a life ago for the 35-year-old Ambati, who is now a Professor of Ophthalmology and the Director of Corneal Research at Moran.
Ambati immigrated to the U.S. from southern India when he was 3 years old. His family came to New York to study engineering.
His high-achieving parents didn’t push him, he says.
“I started school at age 6 like everybody, but within a couple of weeks of starting they put me into second grade,” Ambati said.
After that, Ambati didn’t slow down. He spent two years in elementary school, two years in junior high, and two years in high school, graduating at 11 years old.
New York University took another two years.
But medical school doesn’t speed up for anyone. He was an M.D. after 4 years at Mt. Sinai Medical School. He was 17 years, 294 days old.
“Everything I’ve done is really due to God’s grace and family support. Those two factors have been essential,” he said.
It took an act of the New York State Legislature to allow an eighteen year old to hold a medical license.
Still, Ambati’s achievement continued: Residency at Harvard, Fellowship at Duke, a PhD in cell biology while serving his first professorship at the University of Georgia Medical School, and then an MBA at the University of Utah.
“If I had to do things over, I think I would have done them the same way.”
Now Ambati runs a start up company called IVeena while still holding down his professorship and medical practice.
Ambati also travels overseas 3 or 4 times a year, conducting surgeries in developing countries while training local physicians.
He says he and his brother, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Kentucky, would like to start an eye hospital in India.
Ambati says in the developing world, blindness is often a lethal disease: “There’s a very cruel saying in India that a blind person is a mouth with no hands.”