The concept of a child genius or prodigy has existed for centuries. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was composing symphonies and performing for European royalty by age five, Picasso was drawing before he learned to speak and Marie Curie taught herself to read and helped her siblings with their homework by age four.
Though not the first child prodigy, physicist Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski is certainly one of the latest and, if “the next Einstein” tag has any say, one of the greatest.
But before having her work cited by Stephen Hawking, visiting the White House or taking photo shoots with then-First Lady Michelle Obama, the first-generation Cuban-American was making a name for herself in Chicago. While enrolled at a the Edison Regional Gifted Center she began to hone her passion for aviation, even rebuilding her own engine and constructing the frame of the Cessna 150 airplane her grandfather gifted her for her 10th birthday.
Her prominence was captured in the science community when she documented her construction of a single-engine airplane on YouTube, at 14. Two years later she flew that airplane by herself over Lake Michigan becoming the youngest person to pilot her own plane. All of that, however, was a precursor for what was to come. Gonzalez Pasterski’s star really began to take off in 2016 after graduating from MIT. Via her website, Gonzalez Pasterski said in regard to her MIT accomplishments, “I graduated No. 1 at MIT Physics – the first girl to win the MIT Phsyics Orloff Scholarship award; and tied for the top overall GPA (grade point average) at MIT Institute wide: 5.00.” She failed to mention that she did that in three years,
Since the news of “the next Einstein” broke, Gonzalez Pasterski has become an international phenomenon, being featured in publications and news media outlets in Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, India, France, Spain and Switzerland. Latin American audiences also got an in-depth look at Gonzalez Pasterski from a 2016 article “Una Mente Prodigiosa” (A Prodigious Mind) in People en Español.
She has since taken her talents to Harvard where, as a Ph.D. candidate she was garnered full academic freedom – meaning she can pursue her own study on her own terms without staff interference.
More remarkable than her extensive scientific research and “never achieved at such an age” feats is how involved Gonzalez Pasterski is with getting more young women to achieve success in a male-dominant industry. Her promotion of the United States government initiative Let Girls Learn, earned her a trip to the White House and a two-page spread in Marie Claire with Michelle Obama.
“I think it’s remarkable what she’s done and what she is capable of doing,” said Megan Roberts, a sophomore at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who is also considering a career in physics or engineering. “I read about her in 2016 after reading about her PSZ Triangle (Pasterski-Strominger-Zhiboedov). I mean to be cited by Hawking, that’s so remarkable.”
Roberts added that in climate that she characterized as “misinformed hero worship” for young women, Gonzalez Pasterski is someone who sets the mold for future leaders.
“I hear so many messages of empowerment and progression, but they are coming from the wrong people,” Roberts said. “Most of the women making these statements still have to a look a certain way and act a certain way to keep their sponsors or their jobs. But (Pasterski Gonzalez) is working at Harvard autonomously. Her work is hers; her success is hers; her failures are hers. That isn’t empowerment, that’s just power.”
As for how she takes all the attention, Gonzalez Pasterski is humble. “I am just a grad student,” she wrote on her website. “I have so much to learn. I do not deserve this attention.”
For more on Pasterski Gonzalez visit www.PhysicsGirl.com.