Colorado theater shooting suspect James Holmes rejected by University of Iowa grad school

3:10 PM, Aug 30, 2012   |    comments
James Holmes. (Getty Images)
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By Tony Leys, The Des Moines Register 

James Holmes, the troubled graduate student who allegedly shot and killed 12 people at a Colorado movie theater last month, was turned down for a doctoral program at the University of Iowa last year, newly released documents show.

"Do NOT offer admission under any circumstances," one professor wrote about Holmes in an e-mail to the selection committee for the neuroscience program. The professor, Daniel Tranel, did not explain why he felt this way, but Tranel wrote much more negatively about Holmes than about the other six applicants he interviewed, the e-mail shows.

READHolmes application to grad program 

Another professor, Mark Blumberg, echoed those thoughts about Holmes. "I agree with Dan. Don't admit," Blumberg wrote.

The neuroscience professors' wishes apparently were granted. The documents released today under the Freedom of Information law show that Holmes was not offered a graduate school spot at the University of Iowa.

Holmes wound up as a neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Denver. He reportedly did poorly there and had recently withdrawn when he went on the shooting rampage in the Denver suburb of Aurora, killing 12 people and wounding 58 during a midnight showing of the "Dark Knight Rises."

After the rampage, reports arose that Holmes, 24, had been treated for mental illness. In his application letter to the University of Iowa, the California native mentioned that his observations of other people with mental illness helped spark his interest in neuroscience. The letter talks about when he was a counselor at a Los Angeles-area camp for underprivileged children, and it alludes to shortcomings Holmes saw with psychiatric medications.

"On average, two of the kids per cabin were clinically diagnosed with (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)," he wrote. "One of the weeks, I mentored a kid with Schizophrenia. At 3:30 a.m., he woke up and vacuumed the ceiling of our cabin. These kids were heavily medicated but this did not solve their problems, only create new ones. The medication changed them from highly energetic creative kids to lax beings who slept through the activities. I wanted to help them but couldn't. This is where neuroscience research becomes invaluable."

Holmes wrote that a neuroscience education could help him improve the lives of many people, including those with cognitive disabilities. "Indeed all aspects of society have the potential to gain from advancements in our understanding of learning and memory because we are all connected. We all share one brain, the human brain."

His application shows that he had nearly straight A's as an undergraduate at the University of California-Riverside, where he majored in neuroscience and graduated with a 3.9 grade-point average. A professor there, whose name is blacked out in the Iowa records, rated Holmes as "truly exceptional" in "all-around scientific ability." Holmes' scores were mixed on the standard graduate-school entrance exam. He scored in the 98th percentile on "verbal reasoning" and in the 94th percentile on "quantitative reasoning," but only in the 45th percentile on "analytical writing."

The Denver Post has reported that the Colorado program is highly selective, offering admission to about six of 100 applicants each year. It's not clear why the issues that made University of Iowa professors so leery of Holmes failed to block his entrance to the Colorado university.

In his application letter to the University of Iowa, Holmes talked about how he taught himself how to program computers to perform complex brain-science functions. He also touted his experience working in California labs, including a project analyzing nerve systems.

"I desire to attend graduate study at the University of Iowa, a leader and innovator in scientific research, because the university will provide opportunities to pursue my foremost passions, the science of learning, cognition and memory," he wrote. "I have always been fascinated by the complexities of a long lost thought seemingly arising out of nowhere into a stream of awareness. These fascinations likely stemmed from my interest in puzzles and paradoxes as an adolescent and continued through my curiosity in academic research....

"I have an unquenchable curiosity, a strong desire to know and explore the unknown, and a need to persist against the odds. ... My lifelong goal is to increase the efficiency of how human beings learn and remember."

Tranel and Bloomberg, the professors who recommended rejecting Holmes' application, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Des Moines Register

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