Like most third-graders, Jessie Rosenberg could get excited about something as simple as a marshmallow treat.
But when she was introduced to the Pythagorean theorem, the 8-year-old was beside herself with delight. There’s little doubt that Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician most often credited with discovering the devilishly clever equation, would have been as amazed with the young girl’s interest in his formula as she was with his calculation.
“I’ve always been fascinated by math and how things work,” said Rosenberg, now 25 and a research staff member with IBM. “In the third grade my friend came over to our house and said she had found out this really exciting thing from her dad.
“She drew this triangle and said, ‘Oh, look, this length squared plus this length squared equals this length squared.’ We were so excited and amazed by the Pythagorean theorem.
“I was never a math whiz, but things like algebra, geometry and calculus made sense to me. It seemed logical.”
Math whiz or not, Rosenberg already has distinguished herself as a research physicist. She is being featured in the Jan. 16 issue of Forbes magazine as one of “30 Under 30 Innovators in Science.”
Since 2010 Rosenberg has been working with an IBM team on what it calls “improving CMOS-compatible silicon electro-optic modulation technology for use in inter- and intra-chip low-power, high-speed, and high-bandwidth optical interconnects.” Got that?
Fortunately, Rosenberg has a talent for making complicated matters understandable to laypeople. This is how she explained the project recently while she was home visiting her parents, who live in Crozet.
“I’m working on what is basically a communication technology,” Rosenberg said. “Right now, our computers go really fast if you have multiple computer units.
“The way modern computers are structured is that there is not just one practicing unit. What they do, because they can’t make just one run fast enough, is to get all the speed needed by hooking together a bunch of them.
“So the limitation on speed, then, is not really the individual speed of the components, because we can just add more. The problem is communication, because all these things need to talk to each other.”
Rosenberg then explained that the limiter is the communication factor. But as the communication data grows, so must the electrical cables it travels through — and even more heat is generated by all this activity.
“What we’re working on is, instead of using electricity to transfer this information, is to transfer it into a fiber optic cable,” said Rosenberg. “And we want to make this cost effective over a distance.
“That means it has to be fast, reliable, low-power and cheap. So what we’re doing is leveraging the technology that’s used in computers already in silicon chips, and we’re trying to use that to make optical communications.
“So the silicon chip is going to take your electrical signal from your computer and transfer it into light so it can go over this fiber optic cable. At the other end, it will get transferred back into an electrical signal, so it can talk to the computer there.”
Rosenberg couldn’t predict when this new technology will come online. However, she is confident it will happen sooner rather than later.
Obviously, it takes very bright people to figure out how exactly to do this. So how smart is Rosenberg?
Well, she had somehow taught herself to read by the time she was 3½ years old. And when she was in the eighth grade at Henley Middle School, she was also taking a physics class at the University of Virginia.
By the time Rosenberg became a teenager, she was so advanced in her studies that she was permitted to skip high school. Instead, she enrolled in Mary Baldwin College’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted.
It took the outgoing young lady one school year to finish off all the physics classes offered at the Staunton school. It was then off to Bryn Mawr College, just west of Philadelphia.
The summer prior to starting classes at Bryn Mawr, Rosenberg spent six weeks working on a nuclear engineering project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s special research science institute. She was one of 50 college students granted a full scholarship to the program.
During her first year at Bryn Mawr, Rosenberg was named one of the 76 smartest Philadelphians by the Philadelphia Magazine. To prove it, the 14-year-old explained in understandable language the meaning of Albert Einstein’s equation E=MC2 in fewer than 10 sentences.
Rosenberg graduated from Bryn Mawr College when she was 17. After she received her doctorate in applied physics from California Institute of Technology (Caltech) when she was 23, IBM was quick to hire her.
Rosenberg’s parents, Helene and John Rosenberg, credit their daughter’s excitement for learning, as much as her intellect, for her accomplishments.
“In many ways, it has been a lot of hard work, a lot of interest and a lot of intensity and focus on Jessie’s part, more than a super-duper IQ or anything like that,” said Helene Rosenberg, who is retired from a career with the Foreign Service.
“Many people think that gifted children are self-motivated, but it’s so important to encourage them to move ahead. There have been teachers who have made an incredible difference in Jessie’s life.
“There really are stepping stones [in life], and if you miss some starting out, you can’t go forward. One of the things that kept Jessie in step was that she was interested every step of the way.”
The parents also credit summer programs for gifted children that their daughter attended for inspiring and challenging her. A program offered by Fairfax Collegiate School was pivotal.
“At the beginning of the program, I was given tests to see where I was,” Rosenberg said. “One of the tests had to do with algebra, which I had never taken.
“I passed it anyway. I think the instructor was kind of excited then, because he kept saying, ‘Try this next test, try this next test.’ I was mostly guessing, but it made sense to me how the numbers came together.
“It was during this program that I started thinking about physics. In the math classroom, they had a poster listing all the different kinds of math and the different jobs where it would be used.
“There must have been a hundred different jobs, but only one used all the different kinds of math and that was theoretical physics. That was when I first started getting interested in physics.”
Rosenberg is far from being a one-dimensional person whose life revolves around complicated laboratory work. She enjoys a number of leisure-time pursuits, such as swing dancing, baking, singing and reading.
But it’s in her chosen field of physics where she hopes to make a difference in the world.
“I went into industry rather than staying in academia and becoming a professor, because I like the idea of having an effect on the world,” Rosenberg said. “I think helping make faster computers will do that.
“This particular area of technology that uses light, photonics, is here to stay. The work is very exciting, and the goal of the project is really inspiring to me.
“I think the most important thing is excitement. I’ve always been excited to learn new things.”
Forbes magazine has compiled a list of high achievers in other disciplines as well, such as music and entertainment. Rosenberg graciously downplayed her selection, saying there are few people in her field younger than 30 to chose from.
“It was an honor just to be nominated for this, and to be among all these other incredible people,” Rosenberg said. “I say it’s never not an amazing day when I’m on the same list as Lady Gaga.”