When Maxwell Bertolero was in high school in Danville nine years ago going through severe depression, he was advised that he'd better get his act together or he'd never succeed.
"I pleaded with the high school deans to let me take time off," he said in his valedictorian speech at Columbia University last week. "They threatened I'd be expelled if I was not at school the next day."
He ended up attending Venture School and pursuing motocross, racing dirt bikes around a track.
"When floating 90 feet above the air with my heart a hummingbird, my anxiety and depression could not touch me," Bertolero explained in his speech.
He moved to Southern California to pursue the sport, breaking bones in the process. Realizing he also had a passion for learning, he enrolled at Orange County College as a philosophy major in 2007.
Bertolero started at Columbia University School of General Studies in New York in fall 2008, majoring in philosophy and psychology. Since graduating in February, he has been working in Daphna Shohamy's cognitive neuroscience lab at Columbia. He will attend UC Berkeley this fall in a Ph.D. program in cognition, brain and behavior through the psychology department.
One goal he noted is to raise public awareness of the link between the mind and the brain, so educators and people in general will recognize that depression can be due to chemical imbalances, not character flaws.
"During my depression I wasn't freely controlling the storm in my brain," he said. "I wasn't lost in that storm. I was that storm."
In his speech Bertolero, the son of Sarah and Arthur Bertolero, thanked his family, friends and professors for their support.
"He is not only a brilliant scientist but a passionate humanist, a man of integrity and compassion," said Columbia Dean Peter J. Awn when introducing him.
Besides being valedictorian, Bertolero graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
"We had many, many parents come up to us after the speech and tell us their stories," emailed Sarah and Arthur Bertolero. "We are hoping this story will help some parents and teens see what can happen with a little support and freedom."