By the time she was 13, Sabrina Gonzalez Paterski had both built and learned to fly her own aircraft. A year later, she proceeded to take solo flight in that very plane.

Shortly after, that same teenage girl walked into the campus offices at MIT, seeking approval for her single-engine plane. She received it. So it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that at just 21 years old, Pasterski was already a physics Ph.D. candidate at Harvard.

The Chicago native’s research in high-energy physics theory has taken the physics world by storm. When she was 22, a profile in OZY referred to her as “the next Einstein.” To this, she told InStyle, “No one will be Einstein. He was who he was.” 

And while this degree of humbleness is admirable, Pasterski explores some of the most complex and challenging issues in physics, just as Einstein did early in his career. It’s hard not to draw the parallel.

Shifting our understanding of the universe

Pasterski’s papers have been cited by Stephen Hawking, Andrew Strominger, and beyond. Her work seamlessly delves into topics that most people cannot even begin to wrap their heads around: spacetime and black holes, explanations of gravity in the context of quantum mechanics, Low’s subleading soft theorem as a symmetry of QED (yes, we’re still speaking English).

Discoveries in this arena are so significant as to shift our entire understanding of how the universe works.

Pasterki’s website, PhysicsGirl.com, is the home of her flawless resume, achievements, publications, and proficiencies, which have caught the attention of some of the most brilliant individuals at NASA. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos already offered her a job.

So, what is she up to today?

Pasterki still hasn’t taken Bezos up on his offer. She wrapped up her PhD at Harvard and last year moved on to the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science to continue her research.

She’s diligently studying her craft, giving outreach talks from Princeton’s campus, and according to her resume, enacting her skill of “spotting the elegance within the chaos.”

Inc. reports that Pasterski has been granted thousands of dollars to support her work, including a $250,000 fellowship with the Hertz Foundation and a $150,000 fellowship with The National Science Foundation, both extending through 2020.

“I don’t know exactly what problem I will or will not end up solving, or what exactly I’ll end up working on in a couple of years,” she explains in the video below. “The fun thing about physics is that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do. And normally things just change very quickly — kind of irreversibly — if they’re really right.”

Reinventing your career at midlife

From our interview with John Tarnoff, author of  Boomer Reinvention: How to Create Your Dream Career Over 50.

Do you recommend making dramatic changes — quitting an awful job, moving to a better location, going back to school full-time, etc. — or taking a gradual approach?

Don’t quit your day job to go start a B&B in Vermont. Think about it as a gradual, step-by-step change.

My friend Marc Freedman of Encore.org [a nonprofit that works to leverage the skills of older adults for the greater good] wrote about a woman who gave up her dream of being a lawyer to start a family, then went back to finish law school after getting divorced in her 50s.

But after five years, she realized she didn’t really want to do that anymore. So beware your long-held dream. Spend a week pretending to be in a new role. Ask your network of advisors what they think.

How should people handle the difficult emotional aspects of this journey? Especially for those who may have to give up careers they loved or felt defined them in important ways?

It’s easy to get stuck in the past, looking backward. But if you focus on the future, you can draw selectively — and with inspiration — from your past. I always urge people to volunteer, even outside your field, even if it’s a local community organization or church.

Just by showing up, you can help transform people’s lives. You realize, “I do have a lot to offer.”

But it’s OK to be emotional and be challenged by the process. 

Continue reading: Want to reinvent your career at midlife? Stop and read this first

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