Teenager flies planes, has two degrees, works at NASA
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Moshe Kai Cavalin has two university degrees. But he is too young to vote. He flies airplanes. But he is too young to drive a car alone.
Life is filled with contrasts for Cavalin. He is a 17-year-old from San Gabriel, California. He has dashed past major milestones as his age seems to lag behind. He graduated from community college at age 11. Four years later, he had a bachelor's in math from the University of California Los Angeles.
This year he started online classes. He plans to get a master's in cybersecurity through the Boston area's Brandeis University. He decided to delay that interest for a couple of terms, though. Instead, he will help NASA develop surveillance technology for airplanes and drones.
Between all that, he has racked up a long list of extracurricular feats. He just published his second book. It was about his experience being bullied and stories he has heard from others. He plans to have his airplane pilot's license by the year's end. At his family's home near Los Angeles, he has a trove of trophies from martial arts tournaments.
Still, Cavalin insists that he is more ordinary than people think. He credits his parents for years of focused instruction balanced by the freedom to pick his after-school activities. His interests stem from his cultural heritage, he said. His mother is from Taiwan and his father is from Brazil.
"My case is not that special. It is just a combination of parenting and motivation and inspiration," he says after a recent shift at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center. It is located in Edwards, California. "I tend to not compare myself that often to other people. I just try to do the best I can."
His parents say he was always a quick study. At 4 months, he pointed to a jet in the sky and said the Chinese word for airplane. That was his first word. Cavalin hit the limits of his home schooling after studying trigonometry at age 7. Then his mom started driving him to community college.
"I think most people just think he is a genius. They believe it just comes naturally," said Daniel Judge. He is a professor of mathematics. He taught Cavalin for two years at East Los Angeles College. "He actually worked harder than, I think, any other student I have ever had."
But his rapid rise has not been without twists. Early in college, he dreamed of being an astrophysicist. When he started taking advanced physics classes, though, his interest waned. His fascination in cryptography led him toward computer science.
That has been a better fit, Cavalin said. He was surprised when NASA called to offer work after rejecting him in the past because of his age. Ricardo Arteaga is his boss and mentor at NASA. He says Cavalin was perfect for a project that combines math, computers and aircraft technology.
"I needed an intern who knew software and knew mathematical algorithms," Arteaga says. "And I also needed a pilot who could fly it on a Cessna."
In the office, Cavalin is a quiet worker. He has a subtle sense of humor, Arteaga says. They laugh about the stuff scientists laugh about. His daily work at NASA has included running simulations of airplanes and drones that are headed for collision. Then he looks for ways to route them to safety.
"He is really sharp in mathematics," Arteaga says. "What we are trying to bring out more is his intuitive skills."
In conversation, Cavalin speaks with the even pace and style of someone who chooses his words with care. He is unflappable. At least until he discusses his distaste for being called a certain word. "One word I do not take too kindly is genius," he said. "Genius is just kind of taking it too far."
After he finishes his master's from Brandeis, Cavalin hopes to get a master's in business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Later, he wants to start his own cybersecurity company.
For now, though, he is counting down the days until his 18th birthday. He will be able to get a full driver's license under California law. Living away from home to work at NASA, he relies on his landlord for rides to the grocery store, or he takes a taxi. His older colleagues drive him to work every day.
As for the other teenage stuff, Cavalin says he will wait until he gets his doctorate degree to find a girlfriend. He is only half-joking.