Executive of a community swimming club.
Founder of an educational chat group and online learning platform.
Radio broadcaster and public speaker.
These are some of the things Tristan Pang does – when he’s not studying toward a Bachelor in Science at the University of Auckland.
All very impressive, but the most remarkable fact about Tristan is that he’s not yet old enough to sit his learner’s driver licence.
When he graduates university next year, he’ll be 16.
By the time he’s 21, we’ll likely be calling him Dr Tristan Pang.
Unsurprisingly, he’s widely touted as New Zealand’s pre-eminent child prodigy, but it’s a term he doesn’t have a problem with.
After all, by the time he’d entered his teens, he’d chalked up a score of 91 per cent in the Cambridge A Level exam (at 9), won a national science project that put claims behind Fonterra’s light-proof milk bottles to the test (at 11) and given a TED Talk to an audience of 500 (also at 11).
Today, at a time when most people his age are beginning NCEA Level 1, Tristan is taking five mathematics and physics papers a semester and working as an undergraduate researcher at one of the world’s leading laboratories.
When he tutored a first-year university maths class last year, none of his students realised they were being schooled by a 14-year-old.
It’s an odd place for someone in their early teens to find themselves, but it feels like home to Tristan, who appeared alongside other prodigies at the World Science Festival, held this week in Brisbane.
“The books I read, the games I play, the topics I explore, the issues I am concerned with are totally different from theirs,” he says of others his age.
“When I was at school, while my friends were talking about 1D, which is the boy band One Direction, I was thinking of 11 D, which is the eleven dimensions in string theory – we could never be able to understand each other.”
On campus, he’s happier playing board games like Settlers of Catan, Coup and Seven Wonder with people he’s more comfortable around, all while scoring marks of A+ on most of his papers.
“If there is something I would like to perform at better, it would be accelerating even more, which I can start with on post-grad study as soon as possible.”
At an undergrad level, he explained, courses are subject to guidelines, and on maths assignments, it’s not lecturers who mark his papers, but tutors who have to follow marking schemes.
This has been somewhat frustrating for a unique thinker like Tristan, who comes up with different solutions to those taught in class because finding new ways to attack problems is more stimulating.
When the tutors deducted marks because his equations didn’t follow the model, he naturally disagreed and took his work to his lecturers.
Nine out of 10 times, they backed him.
“But I can’t just keep bothering the lecturers,” he said.
“Post-grad is different, which is what I have experienced during the summer on my research project, I can directly discuss with my supervisors.
“I believe following the rules will not lead to great discovery and invention. I like to think outside the box.”
He credits much of what he’s been able to achieve with some of the great minds he’s met along the way.
Tristan was just 11 when he first approached Professor Eamonn O’Brien, the former head of the university’s Department of Mathematics.
O’Brien could have ignored him, but instead promised to help him thrive and clear any hurdles in his way.
“Professor O’Brien probably had foreseen my admission pathway might not be as smooth as normal due to my very young age,” he said.
“I feel surreal to have such a great mathematician who is unconditionally supporting me. He is the man, the man who walks the talk.”
Around the same time, he met one of New Zealand’s leading scientists, Associate Professor Cather Simpson, whose revolutionary work has led to a sperm-sorting laser that can effectively choose the sex of calves.
Simpson, the first scientist he’d ever met, inspired him to try reading research papers, something he says gave him a deeper understanding of the topics and re-assurance that nothing was impossible.
Her mentoring led to his joining the Science Scholars Programme and a role as a undergraduate researcher with Simpson’s Photon Factory.
He credits others: physicist Professor Richard Easther, who regularly sits down with him to talk goal-setting, and his summer research supervisor, Associate Professor Igor Klep, who’s already given him a taste of post-graduate work with a tough assignment.
It’s just what’s needed for someone determined to throw himself up against some of the most mind-boggling complex fields that science has to offer.
He’s even keen on time travel – a childhood fascination fuelled by the books of Stephen Hawking – and quantum physics, something that’s closely related to maths and investigates almost everything that makes the world on a small and large scale.
A career in mathematics, especially pure maths, also sounds tempting to him, if just for the sense of mystery it offers, and the thrill he gets when complex equations fall into place.
He’d also like to know how the ultra-thin wonder material graphene reacts to lasers, why gravity is weaker than electromagnetism, and what will become of our universe.
They’re big questions: but Tristan sees a big job ahead for his young generation.
“As a human race, we have the responsibility to safeguard the world’s environment and resources for our future generations and other life on Earth,” he said.
“My generation has the luxury of readily-available information and communication, which gives us a more complete picture and root causes of the issues and challenges we are facing.
“So I believe we might be among the most intelligent and forward-thinking generation; however, I think all the generations are more forward-thinking than previous ones, provided that there’s no natural, social and political instability or disaster.”
If he completes his PhD overseas, he’d like to come back to help “build a better New Zealand”.
“Child poverty is one area where I am keen to help. I believe that education is the fundamental solution to break the poverty cycle.
“In the 21st century digital age, a strong knowledge of maths and science is vital. With my passion in maths and science and also in education, I believe I can help a bit.”
That’s something he’s already doing through his educational Twitter chat group, Change Agents NZ, his free online platform Tristan’s Learning Hub, and his Planet FM, programme: Youth Voices with Tristan Pang.
The immense workload hasn’t been the only downside to all of it: tall poppy syndrome remains an unfortunate reality in New Zealand and Tristan has had his critics.
But he’s learned to live with the child genius tag.
“The term ‘youngest’ is always associated with me – the youngest TED talk speaker, the youngest uni student, the youngest tutor, the youngest broadcaster.
“When I was first exposed, via media at aged 9, the most common comments were ‘you will not have a normal childhood’ and ‘you will have no friends your age’.
“Their concerns were actually not a problem for me, as I actually can’t connect with people of my age.
“If older people can make friends with younger people, how come younger people can’t make friends with older people?
“And what is a ‘normal childhood’? Children are abnormal when pursuing their dreams?
“But these kind of queries only happened at the very early stage.
“I think it’s because they see that I am still surviving, I am happy all the time, I am progressing very well and I am still pursuing my dream.”
SOURCE: NZ Herald