Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Academic scholarship winner aiming high

The winner of Warrane’s Academic Scholarship for 2014, James Houlahan, has a very clear idea of where he is heading in his future professional career.

James’s plans go back to Year 10 at Perth Modern School in Western Australian when he set his sights on studying artificial intelligence (AI) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge in the United States.

James was in the media late last year when he was Dux of the Year 12 class at Perth Modern which topped the state, achieving the highest median Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) of students in any WA secondary school.

James’s personal achievement was an ATAR of 99.95 — the highest possible mark a Year 12 student can achieve. But judging by his plans, there are bigger and better things ahead.

“I’m very interested in artificial intelligence and am currently completing a BSc Computer Science, planning to major in artificial intelligence,” James said. “Once I finish my undergrad degree at UNSW, I hope to do further postgrad study overseas — something I decided in Year 10.

“My overall career goal is to gain a research position at MIT in the field of ‘artificial general intelligence’, the field of AI concerned with creating a complete ‘human level’ intelligent system — as opposed to creating ‘expert systems’, which only show intelligence in a very narrow area, such as image recognition for example.”

James was among Australia’s top science students who attend the elite Australian Science Olympiad Summer School last year after beating off competition from 3000 other students. Only 67 students attended the intensive residential program held at Monash University.

James enjoys science because he has always had a drive to find out how the world around him works, but he said he was surprised to be selected for the summer school because he only entered the exam to get practice for his school-based physics exam.

The Principal of Perth Modern has publicly praised James not only for his academic achievements, but for his “incredible community spirit” reflected in the fact that he spent 300 hours on community service across Years 10 to 12.

In addition to his other achievements, James is a keen musician, playing trumpet through to the end of Year 12.

“I studied western art music as one of my Year-12 subjects,” he said, “which involved solo performances on the trumpet. I played principal trumpet in both my school’s orchestra and wind band, and I also sang in the school’s senior choir. I have also been teaching myself the flute.”

James has broad tastes in music. His favourites include Eric Whitacre, John Williams, JS Bach and Gustav Mahler.

His favourite book is Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. Aside from music-related activities, he also enjoys computer programming in his spare time.