When a young Sabrina Pasterski informed her teacher at Aurora’s Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy that she had once flown a plane, the response she received was, “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?” Those words might sound gratuitously cutting had they not been so influential. That’s because for Pasterski, now a 23-year-old physics wunderkind and one of the most daring minds in modern science, they’ve become the mantra by which she strives to surpass her previous achievements.
Pasterski’s questing ambition began at an early age and is arguably in her blood. A first-generation Cuban-American who was raised in Chicago, she reportedly developed an interest in aviation and space travel at the tender age of four. Her father, meanwhile, is not only an attorney but also a pilot and an electrical engineer.
And it seems as if Pasterski’s parents were keen to cultivate her inquisitive mind from the offset. When she was just nine, for example, they began taking her to Canada so that she could have flying lessons – the age restrictions in the United States being too high.
But for Pasterski’s teacher, seemingly, this wasn’t enough. So at 12 years old, the determined Pasterski bought a kit with the components she needed to build her own aircraft. She subsequently spent a month constructing the engine from the scraps of other machines, with the completed model being classified as a “Sabrina 0-200A” by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Then, just under a year after starting the project, Pasterski’s airplane was complete. “I told you, Daddy, I told you,” exclaims a teenage Pasterski in a YouTube video she uploaded in 2008, entitled “Building an Airplane for my Dad.” The excitement in her voice is tinged with significance – at just 13 years old, Pasterski has awakened a lifelong, consuming passion for physics.
When seeking clearance for the aircraft, meanwhile, Pasterski marched into the offices of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her diminutive figure stood out in the male-dominated environment and caught the attention of executive secretary Peggy Udden. “I couldn’t believe it. Not only because she was so young, but [also] a girl,” she told news website OZY in January 2016.
After her aeronautical triumph, then, Pasterski decided to take her skills to the next level. She applied to MIT, though initially she was put on a waiting list. However, an impressed Udden made sure that Pasterski’s talent didn’t go unnoticed.
Udden had brought the video of Pasterski constructing the aircraft to the attention of two professors, Allen Haggerty and Earll Murman. The professors fought her case, and Pasterski was finally accepted as an MIT undergrad in the fall of 2011. Haggerty in particular has been vocal in his support for the young physicist, telling OZY, “Her potential is off the charts.”
And we can safely guess that MIT did not regret its decision to accept Pasterski. After all, she garnered a whole host of accolades and work-experience placements while studying at the college, including stints with Phantom-Works, CERN-GMS and even NASA. Indeed, she was actually the first freshman from MIT to be accepted to the NASA January Operational Internship.
Moreover, though she was only 16 when she began studying at MIT, Pasterski graduated a mere three years later with the highest possible grade point average: a flawless 5.0. But the precocious scientist was never one to rest on her laurels – next, she set her sights on Harvard.
Pasterski’s burgeoning interest in theory consequently led her into the outlying areas of high-energy physics, a field that takes in the study of black holes, gravity and quantum mechanics. So, with her mind primed for enquiry into the most innovative levels of physical theory, Pasterski embarked upon her Ph.D. studies at Harvard.
She’s currently on course to complete her doctorate in 2020. But even now, Pasterski’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. The first academic paper she wrote, for example, was accepted into the Journal of High Energy Physics within a day of her submission. Moreover, Fundamental Physics Prize winner Nima Arkani-Hamed has also said that he has heard “great things” about her. And she has also received an endorsement from undeniably the most famous name in modern science.
Yes, Stephen Hawking himself has even referred to her research in a paper he published in January 2016 – not bad for someone who was barely out of college and only 22. But what about the real person behind the achievements?
As you might imagine, there is in fact a lot of hard work and dedication running through Pasterski’s veins. In addition to her high-school teacher’s barb about the airplane, Pasterski cites her initial snubbing by MIT as a major contributor to her fiery ambition.
As she recounted to the Chicago Tribune in July 2015, “I don’t think I would have cared as much about doing well academically had it not been for the fact that I had something to prove. When you start seeing that people doubt you, you realize, ‘Hmm, maybe I need to do better.’”
Her personal life, meanwhile, seems to be somewhat idiosyncratic. She’s reportedly never touched alcohol or tobacco, while seemingly she is also yet to be involved in a romantic relationship. On this personal abstinence, she remarked to OZY, “I’d rather stay alert, and hopefully I’m known for what I do and not what I don’t do.”
But that’s not to say home life for Pasterski is all straight-edged, one-dimensional academia. Indeed, she has another personal passion which, she argues, is closely related to physics – riding motorcycles. As she told the Chicago Tribune, “A small airplane is wonderful for its view. A motorcycle is great for its acceleration.”
The thrill-seeking physicist went on to explain, “Every physicist should learn to ride a motorcycle. It gives one a certain physical intuition, as does flying a small airplane.” However, despite this badass pastime, Pasterski is reportedly both shy and humble in person.
This endearing trait might be best illustrated by one comment Pasterski has made to OZY, in which she says, “A theorist saying he will figure out something in particular over a long time-frame almost guarantees that he will not do it.” In fact, she’d be practically the last person to claim that physics alone has all the answers – after all, her long-term ambition is to found an interdisciplinary laboratory.
Indeed, Pasterski is a strong believer in the interdependence of scientific disciplines, arguing that biology, chemistry and physics are all reliant on each other for creating a clearer picture of reality. Above all else, she wants to avoid being trapped in a restrictive area of research or in short-sighted commercial work.
For now, meanwhile, she’s currently being eyed up by the likes of NASA and Amazon founder and aerospace developer Jeff Bezos for work – and who knows what exciting new theories she might put forward in her doctorate? All we can safely say is that Pasterski is set to keep on defying expectations and exceeding her own goals. Indeed, as she told the Chicago Tribune, “Oftentimes in retrospect, the thing that’s the hardest or perceived to be are the things you end up being most proud of.”