Mark Gaunin (left) and teammates at the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab hackathon.
Mark Gaunin (left) and teammates at the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab hackathon. Photo courtesy Mark Gaunin

Which of the following statements apply to San Diego State senior Mark-yves Gaunin?

A. He graduated as valedictorian of Mar Vista High School on June 1, 2017.

B. He recorded a rare perfect score on his Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles exam last year.

C. He has 96 credit hours at SDSU, but doesn’t expect to graduate until fall 2021.

D. He inspired the “Mark-clap” as an Academic League team member at Mar Vista — clapping his hands and throwing them in the air.

E. All of the above.

Mark Gaunin in his Mar Vista High School graduation robe as 2017 valedictorian.
Mark Gaunin in his Mar Vista High School graduation robe as 2017 valedictorian. Photo courtesy Mark Gaunin

Teachers and staff at Imperial Beach’s Mar Vista readily — and proudly — pick E. They recall the budding computer scientist as a student who excelled at everything except the 100-yard freestyle as a Mariner swimmer. (A coach doesn’t recall him breaking a minute.)

But last month, The College Board — which runs the Advanced Placement tests for potential college credit — reported that Gaunin, 18, broke into the highest academic ranks.

Gaunin — who goes by Mark — was among only six preps earning a perfect score on its 2017 computer science exam — with 48,949 students taking it worldwide, the test service said.

The exam had 74 multiple-choice questions as well as a performance task. Gaunin nailed every one.

“After this college semester comes to an end, I plan on visiting my old high school to personally thank my AP CSP teacher, and all of the teachers and staff there that had supported me throughout four years of my life,” he said.

Called a “rock star on campus” by Mar Vista Principal Richard Carreon, Gaunin shies from boasting about passing an amazing 15 Advanced Placement tests — 11 after taking classes and four while studying on his own.

“He received a total of six 5’s, six 4’s and three 3’s,” said College Board spokeswoman Maria Eugenia Alcón-Heraux. “His AP credit allowed him to enter San Diego State University with a record-breaking 75 units, which placed him at junior standing. In addition, he received a Merit Scholarship from SDSU, which covers all of his tuition and fees. After his first semester of college, he is now at senior standing.”

Although he’s taking a challenging 21 credit hours of courses this semester, he isn’t graduating soon.

Gaunin is taking advantage of his four-year scholarship by seeking a double major (requiring extra classes) in computer engineering and physics — while minoring in Honors Interdisciplinary Studies.

“He wants to go to graduate school in order to contribute to research on quantum computing, and eventually be able to build and commercialize quantum technology,” Alcón-Heraux said.

None of this surprises his Mar Vista teachers and coaches.

Steven Case Jr. said Mark “studied his little bootie off.”

Case recalls him preparing for the AP Calculus Exam as a sophomore — when his older sister, Anais, was taking his AP Calculus class.

A practice question from AP Computer Science Principles.
A practice question from AP Computer Science Principles. (The answer is B.)

“I remember looking at him, saying that if he scored a 1 or 2 [out of 5], I would like for him to take my class,” Case said via email. “Well, he passed it. Not sure what his score was, but he passed and his junior year self-studied the BC exam and got a 4.”

By the time he was a senior, Case said, Gaunin had no place to go for math but join his class as a tutor.

“He helped many of his classmates understand at a deeper level,” Case said. “Mark was … super academic as well as down to earth. He understood that most of his classmates probably didn’t understand it at a level he did. He was always humble and never shied away from helping someone understand better.”

When Gaunin was a varsity swimmer, Case was the JV coach — “but we had many conversations about his swimming. He was always willing to swim whatever event the team needed him to.”

He worked hard in the pool, Case said, “probably to distract him from the studying and bond with other students that cared deeply … in another arena.”

Although not a star athlete, Case called him “a key swimmer in our meets. He came ever so close to breaking the 1:00 minute time frame for the 100-yard freestyle. I think he clocked in at a 1:00.02 in his last swim as an eligible student. I will always miss that energy on the deck.”

Michael Crawford, another teacher, saw that energy on Mar Vista’s Academic League team. (Mark graduated with a 4.56 grade-point average.)

He said Gaunin’s scholarly approach was more about deep understanding than the kind of trivia memory Academic League rewards.

“So although he was a good player, his contribution to the team was more memorable in the sense of his leadership and team spirit,” Crawford said. “Once as an underclassmen, he exulted in a slightly awkward manner after successfully answering a question. He clapped his hands and then threw [them] in the air. Another student might have been teased about this.”

But Gaunin was so admired that the gesture became a kind of team ritual, Crawford said: “‘We need to do a Mark-clap,’ the kids would say in those moments that required renewed focus or enthusiasm.”

A practice question from AP Computer Science Principles.
A practice question from AP Computer Science Principles. (The answer is C.)

Anthony Villanueva, a math teacher, didn’t meet Gaunin until his senior year but could tell he worked hard.

“I think some students may have seen Mark as that smart kid who can understand anything easily, but they may have overlooked his passion and enjoyment of learning,” Villanueva said. “In AP CSP, when Mark was programming, he was having fun and I saw him at play, rather than seeing a student completing an assignment.”

George Barker, who worked with Gaunin in AP English Literature, said the math-centric student found literary analysis challenging because it was both overly speculative and overly restrictive.

“Disciplines where ‘correct’ answers are more clearly identifiable seemed more comfortable to him,” Barker said. “I do think that a large component in his success is his family. Though his older sister, Anais, didn’t succeed quite as spectacularly as he did, she was also brilliant, and I’m sure her example over the years was invaluable.”

Barker recalled Hillary Clinton’s maxim.

“It truly does ‘take a village,’” he said. “I feel very grateful to have been part of this student’s village. His successes belong to many individuals.”

Crawford, also an English teacher, shared a letter of recommendation he wrote for Gaunin:

“If only there were more students like Mark-Yves. He asks intelligent questions. He is eager to discuss the course content. He has the intellect and disposition to elevate the level of discourse in the classroom. Mark’s GPA is among the highest at the school — he is positioned to be our valedictorian — but he is not simply interested in grades.

“He knows what it means to be a thinker — a genuine scholar. He respects himself and the work of others and works to thoroughly understand what he studies. His kindness, his curiosity, his sense of humor and his demeanor in the classroom make it a better place for his peers and for his instructors.”

Born in Coronado, Mark is the son of Nelly Albenge-Gaunin and Fabrice Gaunin of Imperial Beach.

“Both of my parents grew up in France where they became involved in the culinary arts,” said Mark, whose extended family lives in Burgundy (Dijon) and Midi-Pyrenees (Toulouse). “I consider French culture an important part of who I am. French was my first language, and it’s the primary language spoken at home.”

His parents worked for a large hotel chain, which brought them to the United States. Fabrice eventually left his job as an executive chef, and Nelly left her job as banquet server. They started their own ice-cream shop called Cow-A-Bunga but sold the business after 10 years.

A practice question from AP Computer Science Principles.
A practice question from AP Computer Science Principles. (The answer is D.)

He credits his sister, Anais, as a large reason for his success — “she motivated me to always do more.” Anais graduated from Mar Vista High School as Scholar Athlete in 2016 and now majors in environmental engineering at SDSU.

An alumnus of Imperial Beach Elementary, Mark transferred to Emory Elementary in third grade for the GATE program, where he was one of 13 “distinguished scholars” in the South Bay Union School District. He attended Mar Vista Middle School and had a perfect 4.0 GPA.

Gaunin was interviewed by email earlier this month:

Times of San Diego: Do you consider yourself a genius or just a hard-working son of a gun?

Mark-yves Gaunin: I’m probably one of the dumbest people I know, and my sister will affirm this. The only reason I achieve so much is because I love learning and I’m dedicated to what I do. It really is hard work.

How did you get interested in computers? Can you share an early memory of computing?

It’s an interesting story because my parents were quite strict on technology. I remember my parents always limiting how much “screen time” I was allowed. They most likely read somewhere that a child shouldn’t be using a device for more than an hour a day. It made me view computers as something special that I was only allowed to use for limited times.

As I began to rely more on a computer for school, my parents eventually dropped the screen limitations. It made me value computers.

I had a flip phone until freshman year of high school, and I only used it to call my parents to pick me up from school. All my friends in middle school had iPhones and iPods. I asked my parents if I could have one, and they told me I could if I paid for it. After looking up the price, I remember wanting to build my own phone. I began to become interested in how computers worked, but I never got to doing anything significant.

Sophomore year of high school, I taught myself calculus by watching Khan Academy videos. I noticed there were videos on the site to learn coding. At the time, I viewed coding as some sort of foreign language that could be used to hack the government, so naturally, I was interested in learning it. That’s when I fell in love with coding.

Practice question for AP Computer Science Principles exam.
Practice question for AP Computer Science Principles exam. (The answer is C.)

I was bad at it, but it was a combination of the problem-solving, creativity, infinite possibilities, and potential that kept me interested.

Senior year I took AP Computer Science Principles, which piqued my interest in computers. In fact, it solidified my decision to declare a major in computer engineering as I applied to universities.

How much did your teachers help in preparing you for AP excellence? Please name some of your favorite Mar Vista teachers, and what they did to help you.

My teachers are the reason I did so well on AP tests. [Chantal] Sakkal (now Mrs. Bare), Mr. Crawford, and Mr. [George] Barker helped me improve my writing to a collegiate level. Mrs. [Chery] Sias, Mrs. [Gisela] Wolfe, Mrs. [Marti] Welch, Mr. Case, Mr. [Mark] James, and so many more helped me learn much more than just the necessary material. Mrs. Tour helped me pay for my AP tests senior year, and I’ll forever be grateful to her. Mr. Villanueva prepared me so well for the test, I got a perfect score on it. All the teachers I’ve ever had deserve recognition.

What kind of financial aid are you getting as a result of your SATs and AP scores?

My tests scores allowed me to receive a Merit Scholarship from San Diego State University, which covers my tuition and fees for four years. My AP scores allowed me to enter SDSU with 75 units (junior-standing). As a result, many of the GE’s I normally have to take are already fulfilled. Since I have many classes already completed and a four-year scholarship, I took the opportunity to double major.

What are some of your classes this semester?

Some of my classes include Discrete Mathematics, Circuit Analysis, Physics and Differential Equations.

How many hackathons have you attended (and where)? What were your best rankings?

I’ve attended four hackathons so far. One at Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab, one at SDSU and two at UCSD. At my first hackathon, which lasted 12 hours, my team built a self-automated plant care system with a user-friendly app that can control different conditions of the plant, such as moisture and heat. We won best in the Internet of Things (IoT) category.

At the SDSU hackathon, my team built a smart watch for those who are visually impaired. We placed third overall.

The two hackathons at UCSD each lasted 24 hours. My team placed second at one of the hackathons by building a robot that’s able to use Google Artificial Intelligence to capture images and decipher between what is trash and not trash. The robot then propels through water to collect the trash.

Are you still interested in water sports? Was water polo your last team involvement? How well did Mar Vista do?

I still love to swim and play water polo; however, I haven’t been involved on a team since high school. Mar Vista was runner-up in CIF for water polo my sophomore year. We moved up to Division I where we then competed against tougher schools. I wouldn’t trade my experience playing water polo for anything.

Do you have time for activities outside SDSU classes? Interested in politics or other cultural issues? If so, how so?

I do have a little bit of time for activities outside of classes, which I generally spend with my friends. I keep track of the news, and I’m aware of politics and cultural issues. I would like to make a difference one day; however, for the time being, I believe it’s important to be educated before making any decisions on political or cultural issues.

Why quantum computing? Where would you like to work? Qualcomm or some other company? Or start own business?

I believe quantum computing is the future of technology. It is superior to classical computers because of its speed and cryptographic security. It can solve many issues in today’s world that couldn’t be fixed otherwise. Its advantages in the medical, engineering, research and computer science fields are endless.

Currently, I would be grateful for any job. I would love to work for a company such as Qualcomm, Google or IBM. Their passion for technology is insurmountable. After SDSU, however, I plan on continuing my education in graduate school where I can research quantum computing.

After I acquire a post-graduate degree, I’ll be in a better position to decide where my life should go. Having my own quantum technology business is a goal of mine, but I’m not sure how feasible it is just yet.

Where will you attend graduate school? What master’s degree would you pursue? Going for a doctorate as well?

For graduate school, I plan on attending a prestigious university such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Both of these universities have programs in quantum computing I would be interested in pursuing. I’m interested in a doctorate degree, but I’ll wait … to decide whether I want to stay in school longer or not.

Know any of the other perfect-score AP kids? Have you been in touch with any of them?

I don’t know any other perfect-score AP kids, but I would be interested in getting in touch with any of them if possible.

Why did you choose SDSU for college?

I chose SDSU … because it is a top-tier institution that provides hands-on experience for its students. It’s conveniently located near my home, which helps reduce certain costs. Of all the universities I applied to, SDSU is the only college I felt that was trying to showcase the support and care it had for its students above just academics. The Merit Scholarship helped solidify this decision.

What’s your advice to other students seeking to use AP classes to advance their education (and save money on tuition)? Should they take SAT prep classes like you did?

I highly encourage students to take as many AP classes and tests as they can. The goal isn’t to reduce tuition costs, but to learn. Saving money is just a benefit that may come out of it. AP classes are the best preparation a student can receive for college. They shouldn’t just take AP courses that they’re interested in.

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life until I discovered what subjects I enjoyed and hated by taking the corresponding AP courses.

The SAT is given a lot of attention in high school. The score doesn’t determine what college a student can go to, but normally, certain universities look for particular score thresholds. I do recommend students ask for help. They don’t necessarily have to take an SAT prep course, but simply having someone else’s understanding and strategy for the test can help improve their score.

Mark Gaunin was one of only six students worldwide who had a perfect score on the 2017 Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles exam.
Mark Gaunin was one of only six students worldwide who had a perfect score on the 2017 Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles exam. Photo via Mark Gaunin

How do you relax, recoup from stresses of teen life?

I love to read a good book. It allows me to immerse myself in a different world and temporarily forget about anything I have to do.

What are your social media accounts? (Or do you refrain from some feeds?)

I have an Instagram, Twitter (both @sharky_marky17), and a LinkedIn.

Will AI be a danger to humanity, as some suggest? Or will people master computers safely?

Computers are actually dumb. They’ll only do what someone tells them to do. Artificial Intelligence is relatively new, and the concepts of machine learning are admittedly quite alarming. Computers are now able to come up with predictions and information that’s accurate, but that a human has no idea how such information was actually concluded. That’s because computers can develop their own algorithms based off of trends in data.

As a result, data science is a huge topic right now. However, I don’t believe automated computers and artificial intelligence is the real concern — it’s the way people utilize these concepts that are the real danger to humanity.

Can technology save humanity from itself?

Humanity is destined to end eventually, but I believe technology can help prolong humanity for many years to come.