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. 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.