By Alison Bowen
Sabrina Pasterski has always rushed toward the next goal, sometimes charting a path quite different from her peers’, whether it was learning to fly a plane long before she learned to drive a car, anticipating the next motorcycle she’ll buy or plotting dreams for a future in physics. The 22-year-old always has bigger plans.
When she returns to Harvard University in September, she’ll be pursuing her doctorate in theoretical high energy physics at the Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature. Prior to Harvard, she graduated in 2013, in just three years, at the top of her physics class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first woman to do so in decades. In July, she was one of 12 honored with a $250,000 Hertz Fellowship, designed to invest in the future of scientific exploration.
Her fascination with what’s above Earth began early. As a child, Pasterski, who attended Chicago Public Schools’ Edison Regional Gifted Center, decided she wanted to send someone to Mars. At 12, an age when many struggle with sustaining their attention span for homework, she spent nearly two years building an airplane that she later piloted herself, flying above the shoreline of Lake Michigan. (She had to secure special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the plane.)
She built the plane, she said, after a teacher from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora (where she attended high school), upon hearing she had flown a plane, replied: “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?”
“That’s become my mantra ever since,” Pasterski says. “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?”
These days, achievements like speaking at the same event as former Secretary of State Colin Powell or researching spaceflight at NASA come up almost as an afterthought. Her website includes a long roster of her accomplishments. The down-to-earth Pasterski, a first-generation Cuban-American, talked to us about successes, setbacks … and chocolate. Following is an edited transcript.