Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski was only 14 years old when she stepped foot into MIT’s campus offices seeking approval one morning for the single-engine plane she built.
Pasterski’s love for science was born in school. Visiting Chicago Public Schools’ Edison Regional Gifted Center, the girl became fascinated with space and even planned a mission to Mars.
Sabina had her first flight when she was 9-years-old. She told her teacher at her public high school about this experience and the teacher replied: “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?” “That’s become my mantra ever since,” Pasterski shares “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?”
When she was 12, she began building a single-engine airplane from a kit in her father’s garage. It took two years to complete.
In 2010, she graduated from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and then applied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite her impressive resume, Pasterski was placed on the waiting list. Thanks to Professors Allen Haggerty and Earll Murman, who had seen a video of the girl building her airplane on YouTube, Sabina was accepted. “Our mouths were hanging open after we looked at it,” Haggerty says. “Her potential is off the charts.”
At age 16, Pasterski piloted the aircraft herself over Lake Michigan, becoming the youngest person ever to fly their own plane. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Peggy Udden, an executive secretary at MIT. “Not only because she was so young, but a girl.”
Sabina graduated from MIT with a grade average of 5.00, the school’s highest score possible. Sabina is currently working towards her doctorate at Harvard University with full academic freedom. It means that she can pursue her own studies on her own terms without staff interference.
Pasterski is no longer building airplanes, but this experience gave her a hands-on understanding of physics. “Years of pushing the bounds of what I could achieve led me to physics,” – she explains. At Harvard, she is studying black holes, gravity, and the relationship between space and time, which can help us understand the universe.
Now, when it’s been more than eight years since Sabrina has built her first airplane, a lot of things have changed. 23-year-old Pasterski has already had great experience. Sabrina is an MIT graduate and a Harvard PhD candidate who has the world of physics abuzz.
Sabina is exploring some of the most challenging and complex issues in physics, much as Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein (whose theory of relativity just turned 100 years old) did early in their careers. Her research delves into black holes, the nature of gravity and space-time. A particular focus is trying to better understand “quantum gravity,” which seeks to explain the phenomenon of gravity within the context of quantum mechanics. Discoveries in that area could dramatically change our understanding of the workings of the universe.