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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Former Child Prodigy Who, He Says, Is Finally Doing Something New and Interesting

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Colin Carlson was a child prodigy. In 2008, the New York Times ran an article about him: “On an Amazing Journey, and He’s Only 12.” In 2011, Business Insider included him in a round-up titled “16 of the Smartest Children in History” alongside Mozart, Picasso, and Bobby Fischer. At 16, Carlson started declining all media interviews.

“I'm a firm believer that recognition should be earned,” he says. “I wasn't really doing anything new to cover. If I always defined myself as the kid who graduated college at 15, nothing I ever did after that would be interesting.”

He politely refused to be on last year’s “30 Under 30” list but said yes when we asked again this year. “For the first time in a while,” he says, “I'm at a point where I can look at the work I'm doing and actually say to myself, this is something new and interesting, independent of what I've done previously in my life.”

Carlson grew up an only child in tiny Coventry, Connecticut, in a house in the woods. His mother is a social psychologist at Western New England University; his musician father died when he was two. He spent much of his childhood in hiking boots.

"It's easy to get caught up in the idealism of the environmental movement—and subsequently have your soul crushed the minute you step out of that cave."

“I think I knew I wanted to go into environmentalism for a while before I realized what exactly I wanted to do,” he says. “It's been something of an upstream journey, really realizing I can do the most with my life as an ecologist doing work on the front lines of climate change.”

Though Carlson doesn’t tend to think more than a year or two ahead, he’s currently focused on “this idea that parasites are going to be as at-risk from climate change as anything else—something we've suspected for some time but which hasn't received a lot of attention.” While the big infectious diseases like malaria are getting worse, he explains, no one has stopped to ask what happens to other species should a parasite go extinct.

“From a host's perspective, a parasite doesn't do too much good,” Carlson says. “But at the scale of an ecosystem, they hold everything together. Their disappearance could cause huge problems. In conservation research we talk a lot about this analogy of rivets popping out of a plane's wing. If enough fall out, the plane will definitely go down, but we don't always know how many rivets it will take. We have no idea what the tipping point might be, and we need to figure it out fast.”

In 2012, Carlson interned at the Environmental Protection Agency, in the agency’s Office of Policy. His boss there, Joel Scheraga, whom Carlson calls “wonderful and brilliant,” offered him this advice: “When you have to choose between being right or being happy, allow yourself to make the choice that keeps you sane.”

Carlson keeps that top of mind. “It's easy to get caught up in the idealism of the environmental movement—and subsequently have your soul crushed the minute you step out of that cave,” he says. “That compromise in the name of the greatest achievable good is fine, and no one will think less of you if that's where you set your sights. You shouldn't set yourself to a higher standard than that.”

Carlson, who seems to have done a lot of introspection, tries not to let himself be defined by any single identity. “I'm a bisexual Christian 18-year-old doctoral student,” he says. “When people try to pigeonhole me it doesn't really get anywhere. I extend that to myself as well. I used to waste a lot of time doing that pretentious dance of ‘figuring out who I really am’ and I've realized that effort is much better directed toward other things, like learning to cook Thai food, solving disease ecology puzzles, horseback riding, or just generally not being a self-absorbed person.”

That college he graduated from at age 15 was the University of Connecticut, where he has degrees—Bachelor’s and Master’s—in environmental studies and ecology. At 14, he won the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship, making national headlines. That same year, he also got the Pearson Prize National Fellowship and the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. The year before, he won the Morris K. Udall Scholarship. “There's a bunch of others,” he says, “but they're all small and less personally important to me.”

Today he’s at the University of California-Berkeley, getting a Ph.D. in environmental science, policy, and management. His first year there, he and some colleagues published a letter in Science about parasite extinction. “We're about to follow it up with a much bigger piece talking about everything we've figured out since,” he says. “As researchers, we don't make a difference all at once but we get there eventually.”

So what’s it like being such a young Ph.D. candidate? “Sometimes I forget, as a grad student, that I'm also biologically a teenager with all the fun weirdness that comes with that,” Carlson says. “It's always a bit of a shock when I remember.”

In his Twitter bio, this is how Carlson describes himself: “Despite what Wikipedia says, no longer a child OR prodigy. Just a normal grad student who can't buy beer.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).