University appoints world's youngest professor

David McNeill
Thursday 01 May 2008 00:00
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Youthful prodigy, clarinet maestro, black-belt martial artist and budding scientist, Alia Sabur has astonished her parents and teachers for years with her exploits inside and outside the classroom.

Now, still almost two years shy of being able to buy her first legal drink in her home state in the United States, the New Yorker has been named the world's youngest college professor ever, breaking a record set three centuries ago by a Scottish mathematician.

Korea's Konkuk University has announced that Ms Sabur, 19, will begin teaching physics next month at the Department of Advanced Technology Fusion. The appointment, which was made a few days short of her 19th birthday on 22 February, earns the doctoral student a place in the Guinness Book of World Records ahead of Colin Maclaurin, a physicist who became professor of mathematics at the University of Aberdeen in 1717.

Few who know her were surprised at the announcement. University graduate at 10, bachelor's degree at 14, masters at 17; Ms Sabur has been "setting records and making history, starting with reading at eight months old", says her website (aliasabur.com). Along the way, she found time to become a concert clarinettist with the Rockland Symphony Orchestra when she was 11. She plays Mozart, but loves U2. "I went to their Vertigo concert," she says on the phone from New York. "It was awesome."

Ms Sabur, a PhD candidate in materials science and engineering, is developing spectroscopy techniques "including nano-tube-based cellular probes" that could be used to zap tumours – a cure for cancer, in other words. At university in the US, she worked with her professor on a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

Last year, while waiting to decide her future, she took a temporary position at Southern University in New Orleans, a black institution that she felt had been neglected by the authorities after Hurricane Katrina. "It is the only university that is still operating out of trailers... the only black public college in New Orleans. I do think that is why it is not as far along as other colleges."

What's her secret? Childlike curiosity, she says. "I just wanted to know how things worked. What is science really? It's how stuff works." She thanks God, and her mum and dad – a retired engineer and a cable television reporter – for her genius. "My parents encouraged me in anything I wanted to do. We believe it is a gift from God... a combination of gift and environment."

The gift has sometimes been a burden. By five, Ms Sabur had outgrown her primary school friends and had to bounce ahead into secondary, where she became, in effect, a misfit, too far ahead of everyone else for scheduled lessons. Colleges refused to consider her so she read in class by herself, and studied Tae-Kwon-Do, becoming a black belt at 9. At 10, she was accepted by Stony Brook University in New York, where she took her stuffed toys along to physics classes.

The Guinness announcement has sparked a deluge of e-mails from curious parents. "They want advice for their kids. I say encourage them at what they're good at."

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