Remember the name Nicole Barr. The 12-year-old girl scored a 162 on the Mensa Genius test—the highest reportable score—sending the British media into a frenzy last week. Nicole’s score, which is a measure of IQ, puts her in league with some of the greatest minds in history. Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking are estimated to have IQs around 160.
The average score on the test is 100, and anyone who earns 132 or higher (the 98th percentile) on the Mensa exam earns admission to the Mensa society, an international high-IQ club. According to Mensa, an IQ between 135 and 158 is in the top 1% of the population. Nicole’s score, 162, isn’t even listed on Mensa’s score-to-percentile conversion scale, so she’s literally off-the-charts smart.
“At first, I didn’t know it was the top score, and then I was really shocked,” Nicole told Quartz in a phone interview. She hopes to do medical research when she grows up, she said: “I just want to make cures and help people.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether all the brainpower in the world is enough to cure a persistent form of discrimination in the UK. Nicole lives with her mom in Harlow, Essex, and is a part of the Roma Gypsy community, according to her father, James Barr.
Discrimination against Roma and the Traveller community is “the last bastion of ‘acceptable’ racism” in the UK, Pauline Lane of Anglia Ruskin University told the Independent. A recent report (pdf) found that widespread systemic and institutional racism—in education, healthcare, and criminal justice—has left many Travellers, Roma, and other nomadic groups marginalized and in poverty.
Students from these communities often fall behind in school because they tend to enroll later than their peers, according to a 2012 report (pdf). The authors also found that financial constraints are pulling students out of the classroom, and institutionalized prejudices in the schooling system are pushing them out, making it incredibly difficult for these children to succeed academically.
Traveller communities often expect their young people to work and be financially independent, forcing academics to take a back seat to a paying job. Nicole’s father, who also scored very well on the Mensa exam, is a gutter cleaner who got his first job as a groundworker at age 12 after dropping out of school at 11, he said. Her mother, Dolly Buckland, works as an assistant supervisor at a hotel, is a beautician at night, and tends bar two weekends a month.
Even as a 12-year-old still in school, Nicole is industrious and always thinking up clever ways to make quick cash, her mother said. In a phone interview with Quartz, Nicole explained that before going to a local fair, she checked the weather report and saw it was going to rain, so she bought £20 worth of umbrellas at a discount store, then sold them for £60. “I made £40 in profit,” she said.
Buckland, Nicole’s mother, told Quartz that when she was in school she herself experienced discrimination, and many of friends from her community dropped out around age 12 because of vicious bullying. She said it was painful to watch Nicole go through the same thing during primary (elementary) school, where she endured bullying, discrimination, and classroom isolation. Nicole recalled, “I didn’t have any friends there.”
Despite her intelligence, Nicole’s teachers tried to place her in a one-on-one teaching environment focused on very basic skills, Buckland said, adding that she herself was put in a similar program growing up, and found the sessions academically debilitating and socially isolating. “It made me feel so stupid,” Buckland said. The program Nicole was placed in was for “social skill development,” the school told Buckland, but this didn’t ring true, she said: “I couldn’t figure that out, because she’s so social.”
Things have improved for Nicole now that she attends Burnt Mill Academy—a large state-run secondary school that requires uniforms, boasts high standardized test scores, and advertises a zero-tolerance bullying policy. Nicole’s mother told Quartz that she warned her daughter not to let any of the other students know about her background, because she “did not want Nicole to face the name-calling and bad looks.”
Helena Mills, a head teacher at Burnt Mill, said the school does everything it can to prevent such discrimination. And indeed, Nicole said she has had a much more positive experience there. ”I’ve made friends from the first day,” she said, “and I’m still making them now!” At Burnt Mill, Nicole finally felt comfortable telling the other kids about her heritage, and her mother said the other students “did not treat her in any way different.”
Drama is her favorite subject, and she has a particular penchant for Shakespeare, because she likes the language. She told Quartz that she finds it very easy to memorize the scripts.
Nicole has always showed genius-like promise, according to her mother: “Even when she was just two years old she was obsessed with counting everything, and could talk certain words in Spanish.” But what Buckland says really distinguishes Nicole from her peers is her hard work. Though she can always do her school work in minutes, she never uses that as an excuse to be lazy.
Nicole’s parents say they hope her academic and intellectual success can help combat negative stereotypes associated with their community. They note, however, that her genius easily could have been overlooked had her dad not signed her up for the Mensa exam.
The flurry of press following Nicole’s exam score should show British society that its stereotypes of Roma and Traveller communities are wrong, Nicole’s father said. “It’s nice for us to be in the news for something good for a change,” he told the Western Daily Press. But her mother expressed some pessimism: “People like to print the bad.”