Teenager flies planes, has two degrees, works at NASA In this photo from 2008, a then 10-year-old Moshe Kai Cavalin is seen with his East Los Angeles College Math instructor Daniel Judge. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Teenager flies planes, has two degrees, works at NASA
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Moshe Kai Cavalin has two university degrees, but he's too young to vote. He flies airplanes, but he's too young to drive a car alone.
 
Life is filled with contrasts for Cavalin, a 17-year-old from San Gabriel, California, who has dashed by major milestones as his age seems to lag behind. He graduated from community college at age 11 and four years later, he had a bachelor's in math from the University of California Los Angeles.
 
This year, he started online classes to get a master's in cybersecurity through the Boston area's Brandeis University. He decided to postpone that pursuit for a couple of terms, though, while he helps NASA develop surveillance technology for airplanes and drones.
 
Between all that, he's racked up an exhausting list of extracurricular feats, including publishing his second book, drawing on his experience being bullied and stories he's heard from others. He plans to have his airplane pilot's license by the year's end and at his family's home near Los Angeles, he has a trove of trophies from martial arts tournaments.
 
Still, Cavalin insists that he's 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 eclectic interests stem from his cultural heritage, he said, with a mother from Taiwan and a father from Brazil.
 
"My case isn't that special, it's just a combination of parenting and motivation and inspiration," he said after a recent shift at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center 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, his first word. When Cavalin hit the limits of his home schooling after studying trigonometry at age 7, his mom started driving him to community college.
 
"I think most people just think he's a genius, they believe it just comes naturally," said Daniel Judge, a professor of mathematics who taught Cavalin for two years at East Los Angeles College. "He actually worked harder than, I think, any other student I've ever had."
 
But his rapid rise hasn't been without twists. Early in college, he dreamed of being an astrophysicist, but when he started taking advanced physics classes, his interest waned, and 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, his boss and mentor at NASA, 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 with 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, and then finding ways to route them to safety.
 
"He's really sharp in mathematics," Arteaga says. "What we're trying to bring out more is his intuitive skills."
 
In conversation, Cavalin speaks with the even cadence and diction of someone who chooses his words with care. He's unflappable, at least until he discusses his distaste for being called a certain word: "One word I don't 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, and later, he wants to start his own cybersecurity company.
 
For now, though, he's counting down the days until his 18th birthday, when he'll 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'll wait until he gets his doctorate degree to find a girlfriend. He's only half-joking.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why was Moshe a perfect fit for NASA?
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COMMENTS (66)
  • sierrab-ste
    11/09/2015 - 04:42 p.m.

    This is absolutely crazy that a teenager is doing all of these things!! As generations go on kids are becoming smarter and smarter. Congrats to this kid for working hard and going so far in life already.

  • marshallh-wes
    11/10/2015 - 02:45 p.m.

    Moshe was a perfect fir for nasa becuase of his knowledge in mathematics and science and his intrest in space crafts

  • ananyab506-sta
    11/10/2015 - 02:56 p.m.

    Wow! He is amazingly smart for a teenager, plus I am truly amazed that he can fly a plane!

  • dimyam-day
    11/10/2015 - 09:53 p.m.

    Reading the title, I thought to myself I wish I had my life together as well as this kid. Although I never understood how someone could be so smart they are 10 and in college, it's insane! Although I'm sure my definition of hard work and Moshe's definition are completely different. On the positive side most people get into college at 18 and are there until about 22, Moshe is about to graduate at the age of 17, therefore he can hopefully get a head start on what he will wants to do with his life.

  • benjaminc-day
    11/12/2015 - 02:10 p.m.

    This is a crazy case of a child genius or prodigy. I think that as technology continues to improve as well as education, this can become a more common occurrence. Its obvious that the rapidly expanding technological world is a perfect fit for Moshe because of his love for math, science, and engineering. It is refreshing to see a kid so young with so many accomplishments and set on what he wants to do with his life. If we can have more kids like Moshe who love math, science, and the future of technology, our country has no limits on what we can accomplish in the future.

  • holdeno-3-bar
    11/13/2015 - 12:01 a.m.

    Moshe was a perfect fit for NASA because he was intelligent and able to display his skills outside of the workplace. When talking about why he hired Moshe, Arteaga says that " 'I needed an intern who knew software and knew mathematical algorithms [...] and I also needed a pilot who could fly it on a Cessna' " (par. 11) Arteaga said that he needed a smart person who could also translate his work to flying a plane. Moshe was very smart, having graduated UCLA at 15, and also was able to fly planes. These traits being exactly what Arteaga was looking for, Moshe was easily the perfect fit for NASA.
    I really enjoyed this article because it praises the abilities of a teenage prodigy and talks about science.

  • mathewb-day
    11/13/2015 - 09:11 a.m.

    This kid has done more in 17 years then I will do in 30. This kid is a genius whether he wants to admit it or not. Props to this kid.

  • derekh-day
    11/13/2015 - 10:43 a.m.

    I don't know whether to feel stupid or lazy. I've never understood how anyone can enjoy school like this guy does (or at least I think he does). Working for NASA is an achievement on its own in the first place, but doing it that young is just unheard of. He has a lot to be proud of, good for him.

  • mattheww-day
    11/13/2015 - 11:23 a.m.

    Moshe had many skills that NASA was looking for. He dreamed of working for NASA when he grew up. He also works very hard and dedicates himself to his work. He probably will work for NASA for the rest of his life.

  • holdenv-day
    11/13/2015 - 12:16 p.m.

    there are amazing people in the world that are capable of so much.you just have to figure out how to use that capability. this kid has.he is super smart and is a pilot. another person like him is a fifteen year old who has a IQ that is higher than Einstein's.

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