A child prodigy’s tough years: ‘world’s youngest professor’ comes of age

Alia Sabur, who became a professor at 18, warned students in Ireland this week of the hazards of doing too much, too soon

Alia Sabur learned to read when she was eight months old. She completed her primary-school curriculum at the age of five. She became an accomplished clarinetist and earned a black belt in tae kwon do. Even the best private schools in New York, where she is from, felt Sabur was too advanced to be accommodated.

Instead she entered university at the age of 10 to earn a science degree in applied mathematics. By 17 she had a master’s in materials science and engineering and, three days shy of her 19th birthday, set a world record by becoming the world’s youngest ever university professor.

Cramming all those achievements into a short space of time, the 26-year-old says, doesn’t always leave room to grow as a person. “I think there’s often a transition period for people like me who do a lot of things very early,” she says. “For a long time everything you do is special solely by virtue of your age. Inevitably, or so you hope, you grow up and become just a regular adult.

“How that transition goes can vary a lot based on the person you are. In my case, setting that Guinness world record was seven years ago now, and since then I’ve had some time to, you know, work on being me.”


Student summit

Sabur has been in Dublin this week for the Undergraduate Awards Global Summit. The event, billed as “Davos for students”, gathers bright young academics to focus on enhancing their personal development – something Sabur is well placed to talk about.

Many of the attendees are leaving college and deciding what to do with their lives. As gifted and passionate as they are, Sabur says, it can be hard figuring out where to direct that passion.

“I wanted to emphasise to the students that they don’t need to feel locked in by their previous work or the expectations of others,” she says. “I wanted to emphasise the importance of flexibility in your plans and taking opportunities as they come. Even when it feels like you’ve invested a lot in pursuing one direction, there’s still time to do something else.”

Sabur learned this the hard way. While studying for a PhD at Drexel University in Philadelphia, she became disillusioned with academia. She sued the university, believing the adviser supervising her research was not only taking credit for her ideas but using them to apply for grants and patents.

The professor in question denied this and accused her of stealing his work. The lawsuit went into private arbitration, and, although the results are confidential, Sabur says she was cleared of any accusations.

This was around the same time that Sabur took a professorship teaching advanced technology fusion in South Korea. She came home after a year, but by that point the path to her PhD felt obstructed. Sabur’s relationship with Drexel grew antagonistic, and she says defending her doctorate in that environment would be futile.

“It was a pretty rough time. I had this whole plan to finish grad school, get a PhD and become a professor. When that got derailed everything was in limbo. I had put in so many years working for something, and, while I wasn’t completely starting over, it felt like it.

“I had to sit down and say, okay, I’m not doing what I thought I was going to be doing, but I can’t just give up forever. I need to find something and go for it.”

So Sabur became an attorney specialising in intellectual property. She now works for the US patent and trademark office, drawing on her engineering background while helping others protect their research rights. Still, she knows there is time to explore other possibilities if she so chooses.

No limits

Sabur understands the pressures these undergraduates face when one’s potential seems limitless, and when people expect so much of you that it can be hard to find your way. But if she has one piece of advice for them, it’s to follow your heart.

“In the end you have to feel good about what you’re doing,” she says. “The older I get the more I learn how many factors are important to your life and success. At the moment I’m just giving myself the freedom to reassess and recalibrate what I do.

“I always worked towards one goalpost or another, taking a few years as the basis for each one. This might be the first time in my life where I haven’t been doing that. And, right now, that feels like the right place for me.”