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Math whiz spends free time perfecting art of baking cakes

STANFORD -- Unlike many young men on the verge of graduating from university, Andras Vasy knows exactly what he wants in life.

After completing a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's in math in his four years at Stanford, he is heading straight for his Ph.D. in math at MIT. Beginning this fall, he hopes to take that hurdle in three years and already envisions a professorship in mathematics in central Europe.

"There is not much else I can do," he jokes.

Vasy will become one of the first Hungarian students to graduate from Stanford University this June 13, and while he would enjoy numerous possibilities both here and in Europe, he sees himself as a pure theoretician.

"I am not interested in the experimental parts of physics and enjoyed very much the feeling of getting a general idea of how things connect in mathematics," he said.

Vasy was an excellent student at Stanford. Despite the pressures of a coterminal degree, he did well enough to win one of the prestigious 1993 Dean's Award for Academic Achievement.

Despite the ambitious curriculum, Vasy said he never felt overwhelmed.

"In the first two years, I nearly finished up my bachelor's and then took mostly math classes," he said. "I did not feel much pressure, maybe because I like studying a lot."

To give his mind a break from complex theoretical formulas, he took to more practical formulas, getting heavily involved in the art of baking cakes. Not American cookies or rolls, of course, but complicated recipes of the Austrian-Hungarian pastry tradition that can require a full afternoon to produce a multi-layered wonder.

"I have this Hungarian book with 800 recipes and try one per week," Vasy said. "Being a theoretician, I was quite amazed to discover that I do have a talent for that. It's my favorite activity now," he said.

A math talent in high school, he did so well in national math and physics contests that he received a scholarship for a British international school. Although the authorities of then-communist Hungary only reluctantly allowed students to go abroad, they had gradually been easing hard-line policies since the early '80s, Vasy said.

While finishing high school in England, teachers there encouraged Vasy to consider American colleges - just at the time when Communist rule dissolved peacefully in Hungary.

"Being in an international school, it was quite natural for me to come here," he said, "yet it was a new thing for Hungarians who had not emigrated or were not children of diplomats."

Vasy's family, still in Hungary, was relatively unaffected by the political and economic turmoil.

"Although it's very nice that these changes happen, there are bad consequences, such as high unemployment," he said. "Luckily, my parents don't have to fear that."

Vasy's father, a literature professor at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, specializes in 20th-century Hungarian literature and works closely with young poets, editing their anthologies and helping them to publish. His mother is a high school literature teacher. With these jobs, "My parents can't get rich very fast, as some people now do in Hungary, but they are safe."

While supporting avant-garde authors was sometimes dangerous in other eastern European communist countries, the Hungarian authorities were more lenient, Vasy explained.

"I went to the theater frequently, and the performances were quite free [in content]," he said. "We had a good life there." Though he admits to having acquired some "Americanisms," Vasy wants to go back to Europe after his doctorate.

"I hope to go to Hungary, Austria or Germany after that degree," he said. " I don't like to be at the other end of the world from my family."

Studying at Stanford has been a very good experience for him, Vasy said. While the average math or physics student might benefit from the more rigorous requirements of some European universities, he said it is at places like Stanford where an ambitious student finds more opportunities and support.

"There is an excellent faculty, they are the leaders in the field," he said. "They are motivating and give you a sense of what research is going on in the field, and you can become part of it.".

Vasy said he also liked the easy interaction he was able to have with his professors at Stanford.

"You can just go and talk to them," he said. "That's not so easy in Hungary."

Besides absorbing enough math and physics for two degrees, Andras spent time with his European friends chatting in the Coffee House and went to softball games with American friends.

When he is not trying to make his friends fat with his tarts, he said, he reads literature and enjoys music.

"Another great thing Stanford did for me was getting me into classical music. I took a class in Russian music and listen to it very often ever since," he said. Unlike his talents in math and physics, however, he said he is "absolutely untalented to play an instrument myself."



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