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
Lexile

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. He just published 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. 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 says 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. 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'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. 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, 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. 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?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (161)
  • adamsp-rob
    11/10/2015 - 09:54 a.m.

    Airplanes and jets are kind of similar to rockets, therefore, Moshe had a good experience of airplanes saying his first word in a chinese language. He is a perfect fit for NASA because he is first very intelligent, and he flown an airplane.

    If Moshe were interested in doctoring, I believe he would've found a cure for cancer or invented a flying car.

  • aderholdm-rob
    11/10/2015 - 09:58 a.m.

    Arteaga says that he "needed an intern who knew software and knew mathematical algorithms." At this time Moshe knew mathmatical equations and algorithms. In fact, he had a bachelor's degree in math at age 15. Also he knew trignomtry at age seven.

    • faithd-ren
      1/05/2016 - 10:27 a.m.

      I totally agree with you. I also said that he had a bachelors degree in math. Isn't that cool. He also had a passion for science and math which is good because he works really hard. Moshe also wanted to work for NASA so he pushed himself to do his best. I like your comment it was really discriptive.

  • samn-buc
    11/10/2015 - 10:00 a.m.

    I think that it is super cool that he is that humble. I also wish I would have finished trigonometry 6 years ago.

  • nickh-ver
    11/10/2015 - 10:11 a.m.

    Wow this kid must be a genius having two degrees works at NASA and knows how to fly planes before most of us could even drive a car.

  • esparzaa-rob
    11/10/2015 - 01:46 p.m.

    Moshe Kai Cavalin is really talented and I really like the fact that he is not kind towards the word genius like this because in a way he is saying that he wasn't just a genius he got to where here through pure hard work and effort. What cavalin is doing really suits him. He will change the world for the better.

  • angelinaf-ver
    11/11/2015 - 06:06 p.m.

    I really liked this article. I think it is really impressive a 17 year old is doing all of that. I find it very surprising and cool though everything he is doing.

  • theaw-4-bar
    11/12/2015 - 12:30 a.m.

    Moshe was a perfect fit for NASA because he knew a lot about math, science and airplanes/aircrafts. Ricardo Arteaga, his boss at NASA states "Cavalin was perfect for a project that combines math, computers and aircraft technology." Moshe has a bachelor's from UCLA in math, he also started taking online classes to get a master's in cyber security this year. That shows that Moshe is interested in math and science, making him the perfect fit. I liked this article a lot because it was very informing, it didn't make me bored and Moshe is a very young, inspirational person.

  • tylerc-1-mil
    11/12/2015 - 08:08 a.m.

    Moshe was a perfect fit for nasa because he was a very smart kid. He had two degrees from two different universities and he does an outstanding amount of extracurricular activities. He is passionate about flying and won't back down from anything.

  • jerryd-mil
    11/12/2015 - 08:10 a.m.

    They were doing a project that he'd be good for

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