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.
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 Centre 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 mother took him to community college.
“Most people just think he’s a genius, they believe it just comes naturally,” says 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 to 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 humour, Arteaga says. His 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.
After he finishes his masters from Brandeis, Cavalin hopes to get a master’s in business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As for the other teenage stuff, Cavalin says he’ll wait until he gets his doctorate to find a girlfriend. He’s only half-joking.