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Video: Meet world’s youngest college prof

By
TODAY contributor
updated 4/24/2008 3:18:54 PM ET 2008-04-24T19:18:54

Perhaps in Alia Sabur’s wildly advanced studies she came across a famous quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Knowing is not enough. We must apply,” the German writer once observed.

That could serve as explanation for what prompted the 19-year-old to become the youngest college professor in history.

Armed with prodigious wisdom, Sabur told TODAY’s Ann Curry on Wednesday that knowledge is power — especially when sharing it.

“I really enjoy teaching,” said Sabur. “It’s something where you can make a difference. It’s not just what you can do, but you can enable a lot of other people to make their changes.”

Sabur, from Northport, N.Y., has clearly been ahead of the learning curve since an early age.

She started talking and reading when she was just 8 months old. She had elementary school finished at age 5.

She made the jump to college at age 10. And by age 14, Sabur was earning a bachelor’s of science degree in applied mathematics summa cum laude from Stony Brook University — the youngest female in U.S. history to do so.

Her education continued at Drexel University, where she earned an M.S. and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering.

With an unlimited future ahead of her, Sabur directed her first career choice to teaching. She was three days short of her 19th birthday in February when she was hired to become a professor at Konkuk University in Seoul, Korea.

This distinction made her the youngest college professor in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, beating the previous record held by Colin Maclaurin in 1717.

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Maclaurin was a student of physicist Isaac Newton. Sabur said she is merely gravitating toward putting what she has learned to good use.

“I really feel I can help a lot of people,” she said.

At Konkuk University, Sabur said she will take part in classroom instruction, but will also focus on research into developing nanotubes for use as cellular probes that could help aid in cures for diseases.

Although she doesn’t start until next month, Sabur has taken up teaching math and physics courses at Southern University in New Orleans, which is still struggling from the devastation left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake in 2005.

“Some people come and they do Habitat for Humanity and they build houses, but I don’t think I would be very good,” she said. “So I tried to do what I’m good at. I was particularly interested in this university because they are still in trailers after Hurricane Katrina. And I thought it could be something I do to help.”

In New Orleans, Sabur is old enough to teach, but not to join her fellow professors in a bar after work. In Korea, where the drinking age is 20, she might have more luck. In traditional Korean culture, children are considered to be 1 year old when they are born, and add a year to their age every New Year instead of their actual birthday, so in Korea Sabur is considered 20.

Varied interests
On top of her unprecedented academic achievements, Sabur has a black belt in the Korean martial art of tae kwon do and is also a music prodigy. She has been playing clarinet with orchestras since her solo debut at age 11, playing with recording artists Lang Lang and Smash Mouth.

“You can reach a lot of people with music,” Sabur told Curry. “It’s never been really a hobby to me. It’s always been on equal par with my academics.”

So is there anything Sabur can’t do?

Well, apparently she struggles with basketball and with long writing and admits to sometimes being absentminded.

In fact, sometimes she forgets just how special she really is.

“Well, I know that what I’ve done is special and I think about it,” she said. “But sometimes I forget, because I’m used to it and I don’t think about it all the time. Actually, sometimes it takes other people to remind me a little bit.”


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