Introducing: The Top 30 Thinkers Under 30

This year's most exciting young thinkers and advocates in policy and social justice.
By Avital Andrews & Rosie Spinks ,

Most people don't know that Louis Braille developed his reading system for the blind by the time he was 16 years old, or that Joan of Arc led France to military victory when she was 17. Blaise Pascal invented the calculator at 19. Albert Einstein published his theory of special relativity at 26. Young people having big ideas is a very old tradition.

Yet you can't run for president of the United States, or even vice president, until you're 35. (Remember: It's popularly believed that Jesus was crucified at 33.) You have to be at least 30 to be a U.S. senator, and at least 25 to be a representative (for comparison, King Tut's reign lasted from when he was about nine to his death at around 19).

More than one-third of Americans are younger than 30, while zero—zero—federal lawmakers are. The average age of our sitting Congress is 58.5, a glaring demonstration of how grossly underrepresented our young people are in halls of power—a travesty to anyone who has spent any time surveying the landscape of our brightest citizens in their teens and twenties.

You might think that the most difficult task while culling the honorees for Pacific Standard's annual 30 under 30 list is to sleuth out young powerhouse intellectuals who are poised to shape society's coming ideas. You'd be wrong. It is, rather, to narrow down the massive field of qualified candidates, and the avalanche of knockout nominations, we receive each year.

There are simply so many young people whose caliber of thought and devotion to action outstrip by far the vast majority of the older population. Their mental acuity, stamina, and optimism more than make up for their lack of experience.

In fact, their inexperience is often crucial to what they end up getting done: More than a few of this year's crop of phenomenal thinkers openly attribute their intrepidness to their naiveté. They credit the folly of youth with having taken on what they did. Some even say, in retrospect, that if they'd known then what they know now, they wouldn't have attempted what they did.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

Many of the young people we interviewed told us that having an underrepresented identity is what motivates them to do what they do. Some of the people on our list, like the Mexican White House staffer who mentors young Latinas, are deliberately making themselves visible to the next generation. As Marian Wright Edelman, longtime champion for young people, has said, "You can't be what you can't see."

There are also people on our list whose brains literally work differently—whether because of autism, or for other reasons. (Alan Turing, thought by some to have been on the spectrum, was 27 when he built the computing machine that broke Nazi codes—suggesting that neurodiversity can be crucial to solving the world's scariest problems.)

On a personal note, I'll add that every year when I tell people I'm working on this project, some ask, "Isn't that depressing?" They mean, I think, that it must be disheartening to focus on people who have accomplished so much so young, while we common older folk (I am, let's say, past 30) live our commoner, older lives.

"Depressing?" I reply. "No. The opposite."

It's inspiring. It gives me faith for the future. And it's an honor to shine this spotlight. We need to be celebrating young superstars in realms besides entertainment so that even younger people can aspire even higher.

Rather than be intimidated by the 30 up-and-comers on Pacific Standard's 2017 list, we should take their existence as a needed sign that everything might, after all, turn out OK.

  1. Dafne Almazán, 15, Child Psychology
  2. Lily S. Axelrod, 29, Immigration Law
  3. Jacob Barnett, 18, Physics
  4. Tamma Carleton, 29, Environmental Economics
  5. Sean Chen, 26, Urban Planning
  6. Yvonne Dean-Bailey, 21, State Politics
  7. Cristina Flores, 26, Politics
  8. Rebecca Garcia, 26, Computer Literacy
  9. Yaa Gyasi, 27, Literature
  10. Jewell Jones, 22, State Politics
  11. Cody Karutz, 29, Film & Virtual Reality
  12. Michael Li, 18, Neuroscience
  13. Bernadette Lim, 22, Medicine & Gender-Rights Activism
  14. Sara Minkara, 27, Public Policy & Activism
  15. Daquan Oliver, 25, Entrepreneurship & Activism
  16. Tamara Patton, 28, Nuclear Disarmament
  17. Alexander Peysakhovich, 29, Behavioral Economics
  18. Sam Pressler, 24, Psychology & Performing Arts
  19. Jesse Reising, 27, Law & Education
  20. Victoria M. Rodríguez-Roldán, 28, Transgender Activism
  21. Aviva Rosman, 29, Voter Mobilization
  22. Annie Ryu, 26, Social Entrepreneurship
  23. Hannah Safford, 25, Environmental Policy
  24. Erin Schrode, 26, Politics & Environmentalism
  25. Boyan Slat, 22, Environmental Science
  26. Peng Shi, 29, Data Science
  27. June Eric-Udorie, 18, Gender Activism
  28. Thomas Tasche, 26, International Policy & Political Economics
  29. Alexis Toliver, 23, Neuroscience & Public Policy
  30. Anthony Lee Zhang, 24, Economics

Lead Illustration: Photos courtesy Princeton Alumni Weekly & Cheryl Barnhart. (Illustration: Taylor Le/Pacific Standard)

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