She May Sidestep the Einstein References, but This Theoretical Physicist Is One to Watch

Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski's research has delved into complex topics such as quantum gravity, black holes, and holography. She is pictured above in 2014. cambridge02138/Wikimedia Commons

When you were 14 years old, what did you like to do? Maybe go to the movies, play sports, or game with friends online? By the time Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski, Ph.D., was 14, she had built and flown her own plane.

That's when she first caught the attention of the geniuses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she went to get a notarization of aircraft worthiness from the federal government for her single-engine plane.

Despite MIT's interest, the Chicago native was wait-listed when she applied there for undergraduate studies. OZY reports that two professors who saw her airplane intervened, calling her potential "off the charts," and she was later admitted. She graduated at the top of her class, earning a 5.00 grade point average, the highest possible score. She also became the first woman to win the MIT Physics Orloff Scholarship award.

After MIT, she headed for a Ph.D. program in theoretical physics at Harvard University Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature. While there, she studied topics such as quantum gravity, black holes and spacetime. This week, she graduated with her doctorate.

What's next for the newly minted Dr. Gonzalez Pasterski? It seems she can take her pick: She has a standing job offer from Jeff Bezos at his Blue Origin aerospace company, her research has been cited by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, she has been interviewed by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, and NASA has its eye on her. She'll likely continue her work on quantum gravity, a theory that attempts to explain gravitational physics in terms of quantum mechanics.

But you won't find her bragging about her exceptionalness, especially on social media, as she "does not have and has never had a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram account." (She does, however, have a YouTube channel.) As she writes on her website, "I have so much to learn. I do not deserve the attention."

While she may think the Einstein reference is too much, it’s clear there are incredible things ahead, as the video below makes clear.

A growing interest in physics

She is also an exceptional example of a growing trend: Efforts to increase interest in STEM fields are paying off. According to the American Institute of Physics (AIP), the number of people in the U.S. graduating with bachelor's degrees in physics is rising.

There were 8,633 physics bachelor’s degrees conferred in the class of 2017, up from around 8,000 in 2015. That figure has risen about 4% each year over the last 13 years, leading to a small but steady increase in physics-focused grads.

The number of women studying or working in physics has risen as well, though again, the numbers are small. In 2017, about 40% (about 65,000) of high school students who took the AP Physics exam were female. But among college and university physics departments, women make up just 16% of the faculty and staff, according to the most recent data. Though 16% may seem low, that number is up from 10% in 2002.

Why the decline in interest from high school to the professional realm? A 2016 study on how to retain women in physics found that women cited two main factors for leaving: negative relationships with graduate advisors and the '"two-body problem," which is when a couple with both partners in academia needs to find two jobs in the same geographic area.

Let's hope the learnings from that study help pave the way for more smart young women to embrace science like Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski and lead by example.