Charlotte Goodger introduces us to the impressive Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski, one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists
Introducing one of the major up-and-comers in the field of theoretical physics, Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski was a prodigy with an impressive academic resume. A graduate of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she has been cited by Stephen Hawking and holds a world record for being the youngest person in the US to build and fly an aircraft. Her work breaks down barriers faced by women, particularly women of colour, at the cutting edge of science.
Pasterski describes herself as “a proud first-generation Cuban-American”. Born in Chicago, she studied at a residential STEM school in the city of Aurora, The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, before enrolling at MIT aged just 16 and graduated, in a little under three years, with a rare perfect 5.00 GPA. She was also the first woman in almost twenty years to graduate at the top of an MIT class. Attending MIT gave her the opportunity to work at the Large Hadron Collider at The European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, contributing to one of the most significant projects there. Quickly entering graduate school, she attended Harvard, where she studied Theoretical Physics and earned a PhD in the field of quantum mechanics.
From a young age, Pasterski demonstrated intellectual brilliance. In 2009, aged just 16, she became the youngest person in the US to build an aircraft and fly it solo. In a piece published on her website, PhysicsGirl, she writes, “I did not have a driver’s license, yet I was a test pilot at age 16!” She then goes on to discuss the pride she has in her achievements, as well as her ambition to continue studying. The aviation magazine Midwest Flyer even dubbed her “the future of aviation”, citing her desire to learn to fly from the age of just nine.
While at Harvard she made a mark with her intellectual capabilities and hard work, being published in the prestigious Colloquy magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. However, since graduating from Harvard, Pasterski is making a name for herself in her own right. Aged just 27, she has achieved more than most scientists can ever dream of. Her work on quantum memories, which describes the interaction between light and a substance, providing information about the type of light involved, resulted in the formulation of the Pasterski–Strominger–Zhiboedov Triangle. This work has been cited by none other than the late Stephen Hawking in his paper, ‘Soft Hair on Black Holes’. She has also received ten impressive awards, ranging from the prestigious MIT Orloff Scholarship to the Forbes 30 under 30 All-Star Alumni and sources have dubbed her “the new Einstein”.
Aged 27 and already a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, Sabrina Pasterski is a role model for young women scientists. It should be said that I am not in any way trying to place a burden solely on Pasterski – the very fact that she is so incredible is partially down to a grim trend in STEM that can’t be ignored in the face of her achievements.
It is a fact that more women than men attend some form of higher education institution, but only 35% (UK) or 28% (US) of these are STEM students. The first woman to earn a PhD in physics, Jenny Rosenthal Bramley, did so less than a hundred years ago in 1929. In addition, Hispanic students (of all genders) account for just 8% of all higher education-level STEM degrees, even though Latinx people in general account for almost 20% of the US population. Even studies into the causes of this difference show a lack of representation of Latinx women – Adele Lostrano Rodriguez and her colleagues say that these students have been “largely ignored”, and this has caused a lack of “knowledge and understanding” as to why this is the case. Many women of colour in science are aware of the pressure placed upon them to be positive role models for younger generations, as they are scrutinised under multiple prejudicial lenses. For this reason, I am reluctant to name Pasterski as the role model for budding female scientists, being conscious of how watched her position is, how visible she is and the extra scrutiny women of colour in scientific fields face in their work.
However, her philanthropy outside of academia suggests that she does want to do her part to inspire others. Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative has been something that Pasterski has championed, even being invited to a White House dinner in recognition of her efforts, photographed in front of a portrait of the committed educator, Grace Coolidge, wife of the 30th US president, Calvin Coolidge.
In recognition of her philanthropy and achievements, she was awarded one of Marie Claire’s first Young Women’s Honours in a list boldly titled ‘The Unstoppables’ and dubbed “the genius”. She appeared in this list alongside Jessica O. Matthews, a fellow Harvard graduate and entrepreneur; Simone Biles, an accomplished gymnast; and Fereshteh Forough, who opened the first all-female school for coding in Afghanistan. These women all demonstrate a commitment to breaking down barriers faced by women looking to enter traditionally male-dominated fields like STEM and top-level business.
When asked, in her Marie Claire interview, what her advice was to anyone wanting to succeed, Pasterski replied: “Be optimistic about what you believe you can do”. These are bold words to live by, and yet another demonstration of Pasterski’s natural ability as a role model for young women wanting to have a career in STEM. Her consistent humility and drive to achieve more is reflected in the following statement: “I am just a grad student. I have so much to learn. I do not deserve the attention”. However, while her humble attitude is admirable, I believe that her achievements naturally command attention due to their number and variety, and for the very fact of her being a graduate student when making these achievements.
Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski undoubtedly has a brilliant mind and, whether she is consciously aware of her impact or not, is a shining light for women looking to enter scientific fields that, little over a century ago, would have been largely closed off to them.
There are two images in this piece.
The feature image is of a blackboard with physics equations written on it.
Photo by JESHOOTS.com, used with permission, from Pexels
The second image is a picture of Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski in front of a blackboard containing equations.
Photo used with permission from Wikimedia