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As possibilities go, few hold more allure on a busy afternoon than being able to shut out all the noise and hear only what you want.

At the tender age of 29, Parham Aarabi is already most of the way there, in more ways than one.

First, like any tenured professor, he has his own office, tucked away in the University of Toronto's Bahen Centre for Information Technology, a room so remote that cellphones don't even work.

Second is the work that has just earned Dr. Aarabi one of the highest accolades a young tech scientist could want: a place among the world's top 35 innovators under age 35, as named by Technology Review, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He developed a multisensored microphone that can lock on to the right voice, follow it around, and filter out all unwanted sounds.

It means that some day, you'll be able to call home on your cellphone and your spouse will hear only your voice -- not the kids screaming in the back seat, or the guy behind you, honking his horn and yelling at you to keep your eyes on the road.

"My work is about taking information from a lot of different sources, or sensors, and making sense of it all," Dr. Aarabi said yesterday after word of the MIT honour got out.

Any further explanation would boldly go where only hardcore techies have gone before. More interesting is how Dr. Aarabi got here, because his story defies many of the usual wunderkind stereotypes.

He was a late bloomer in school. He's a TV addict. His eureka moment came to him on a soccer field. And when he swapped his parents' suburban home for a downtown apartment with his university buddies, his marks actually went up.

He did it by acting like his invention -- shutting out the noise and listening to the voices that mattered most, starting with his mother's.

"I actually get a great deal of inspiration from my mom," Dr. Aarabi said. "She's very driven."

He was born in Tehran in 1976, eldest child to Sam and Roya Aarabi, both civil engineers. He loved Lego, hard to come by in Iran, but his mother moved mountains to get him the best sets.

Life was good until Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. The family was out of harm's way, and "I used to see fireworks in the sky, and I thought that was so cool," Dr. Aarabi said. "But I could see concern on my mother's face."

When he was 5, his family sold everything and went looking for a new home in Japan, Switzerland and the United States, with trips home to Iran in between.

He was eight before he settled into school in Atlanta. He had no real fondness for math, but fell hard for the computer his family bought.

"Today's Palm Pilots are about 10 times more powerful than that computer," Dr. Aarabi said, but he made the most of it, connecting it to his exercise bike, which he fitted with a virtual-reality display.

"You would bike and see a row of trees that would move along at the speed you were biking," he said. "It was really quite simple."

His parents made their final move, to suburban Toronto, when Parham was 12. At high school in Thornhill, his interest in math caught fire, stoked by his love of computers.

At Thornlea Secondary, he took summer courses and finished a year early. He would have just as soon spent summers like other kids did, but "I didn't know how to do the other things well, so the easy thing for me was to take the summer courses. It was the easy way out."

With a 98 average, he was readily accepted to U of T's engineering science program. After first year, when employers like Microsoft and IBM turned him down for summer jobs, he worked for free for a U of T professor, cleaning residue from plates used in semiconductor research. Still, the experience helped him to land three paid jobs the next summer.

In third year, his average jumped from 90 to 97 per cent after he moved downtown with his pals.

"It saved two hours of commuting time," he said, "and I didn't have a TV at the house with my friends. That saved me eight hours a day," which he channelled into school.

Working through another summer, he finished his master's thesis a year early, and started applying to grad schools. Stanford and MIT both accepted him, and each would pay $50,000 a year, plenty to live on.

"I thought perhaps what was missing from my life was sports, and aspects outside my life that I'd been missing," Dr. Aarabi said. "For that reason, I chose Stanford."

For the first six months, he had no idea where he would focus his doctorate studies at the renowned California school. Then, after a soccer game, the microphone idea came to him.

"I think sports clear our minds," he said. "Thinking becomes more focused after working out."

So off he went, earning his PhD in just over two years, less than half of the usual five. At 24, he accepted U of T's invitation to return as a professor, and at 28, he was awarded tenure.

As he looks to his next project -- a system to search out pictures, recognize them and sort them accordingly -- Dr. Aarabi puts it all down to doing what came easily, and not giving up when it got hard.

"I don't think I'm in any way special or unique," he said. "I just think I was well-engineered by my mom."

areinhart@globeandmail.ca