20 Under 40: Young Shapers of the Future (Academia and Ideas)

The future is unwritten. It is also right around the corner, and, if, as science fiction author William Gibson noted, it is not evenly distributed, more and more young people around the world are reaching toward it to shape it, improve it, and make it more equitable. These “shapers of the future” work in many fields and endeavors, embracing every corner and intersection of health and medicine, science and technology, and business and entrepreneurship. They are people of ideas, framing the intellectual questions and concerns that will guide future thought. They are scholars, builders, designers, architects, artists, teachers, writers, musicians, and social and political leaders. While under the age of 40 (as of January 2021), the 200 shapers of the future that we will highlight in this series have already left their mark on the present, and we expect to see much more invention, innovation, creation, and interpretation from them in times to come.

  • Ghena Alhanaee (30)

    Born in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Ghena Alhanaee took an early interest in how things work, receiving a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Petroleum Institute of Abu Dhabi. She went on to earn a master’s degree in energy resources engineering from Stanford University and pursued a doctorate in civil engineering at the University of Southern California. Remembering the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, she is deeply involved in engineering solutions to risk management and emergency-disaster preparedness, knowing that her homeland is a web of interconnected energy sources and is largely dependent on desalinated water that would be put in danger if power sources were to be compromised. She was named one of the top 20 innovators from the Middle East and North Africa under age 35 by MIT’s Technology Review for her proposal for a coordinated regional approach to emergency-disaster preparedness, incorporating protections for food supplies, water desalination, oil production, and other economic sectors.

  • Jan David Bakker (31)

    Born in Bielefeld, Germany, Jan Bakker received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tübingen; he studied abroad at the University of Michigan in his senior year. He then took a master’s of philosophy and a doctoral degree in economics at the University of Oxford. Now a postdoctoral fellow at University College London and a former intern at the European Central Bank, he is developing a body of scholarly work that explains the wealth of cities through export participation, which concentrates in populous areas with relatively greater market access. This has implications for income inequality, a topic of central concern to economists today. One of his research papers centers on that topic as it relates to migrant workers in postapartheid South Africa, while another extends far into the past to study trade networks and work organization in the Mediterranean region during the Iron Age. He has also studied the effects on supply chains of Britain’s exit from the European Union. His work won him one of two 2019 World Trade Organization Essay Awards for Young Economists.

  • Rutger Bregman (32)

    Born in a Dutch coastal village, Rutger Bregman attended high school in a suburb of The Hague, then studied history at Utrecht University and the University of California at Los Angeles. Based in the Netherlands but traveling all over the world, he has emerged as a leading historian and commentator whose work often appeared in De Correspondent, an online journalistic cooperative. His interests, expressed in books such as Utopia for Realists (2017) and Humankind: A Hopeful History (2020), include education reform and a “return to utopian thinking,” the latter of which includes the 15-hour workweek and eliminating international borders. He operates from the central observation that “in the past, everything was worse” and that, despite the hiccups of history, the human story is one of progress. Similarly, Humankind assumes of human nature that it tends toward the good rather than the bad. Much in demand as a speaker and a prolific writer, Bregman has yet to scale his workweek back to that 15 hours.

  • Wesley Buckwalter (~35)

    After receiving a doctorate in philosophy from the City University of New York and teaching at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Wesley Buckwalter took a post as professor of philosophy and cognitive science at the University of Manchester in England. Now at George Mason University in Virginia, he is at the forefront of work in experimental philosophy, with a particular interest in how knowledge—whether the true knowledge of fact or the false knowledge of delusion and deception—behaves with respect to the practical business of thinking, reasoning, and decision-making. This work has implications for a number of areas of philosophical concerns, such as metaethics. Experimental philosophy, Buckwalter explains, is a newly emerging interdisciplinary field that uses the methods of psychology to investigate philosophical questions: Is morality relative or absolute, and how do people think about that question? Is there such a thing as free will? How do we know that we think and therefore exist? A Companion to Experimental Philosophy, which Buckwalter coedited, and much of his published work address these and many other matters.

  • Tamma Carleton (32)

    Tamma Carleton grew up among the redwoods of California, the daughter of artists who raised her in a rural intentional community. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics from Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work in policy analysis. She founded a farmer’s market in her neighborhood, astonished that many of her acquaintances weren’t quite sure how the nexus of food and the environment worked. As a Rhodes scholar, she earned a master’s degree in environmental change and management from the University of Oxford, then took a second master’s degree there in economics for development. She returned to California to earn a doctorate in agricultural and resource economics from Berkeley. Now an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she conducts research that combines statistical models with data to predict such things as the effects of climate change and water availability on minority communities.

  • Robin Dembroff (30)

    Born female in a conservative religious household, Robin Dembroff identifies as “genderqueer” and uses the pronoun they, “though I make a conscious effort to be patient about this.” Dembroff earned a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate from Princeton University, both in philosophy, and joined the faculty of Yale University in 2017. Dembroff specializes in the ontology and metaphysics of gender, with a particular interest in what and how terms such as gay, female, Black, and other categorical markers signify. This research has resulted in the book Breaking Labels, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Dembroff writes commentaries on philosophical matters for general readers for The Guardian as well as for the New York Review of Books, Scientific American, and other publications. Dembroff has filed an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case concerning gender discrimination, bringing philosophical interests to bear in a most practical way.

  • Qiaomei Fu (36)

    A native of Jiangxi province in China, Qiaomei Fu enjoyed science from an early age. In college she studied sciences, math, computer programming, and archaeology, then went on to earn a master’s degree in archaeometry from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. She was awarded a doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, completing a degree in 2013, and she conducted postdoctoral research in population genetics at Harvard Medical School. She is now head of the ancient DNA lab in the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, working in evolutionary genetics and population genetics. Her groundbreaking work in human paleontology has led to a reevaluation of the relationships between early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in Ice Age Europe, as well as the peopling of Asia. Among her other accomplishments, she was the first scientist in the world to sequence nuclear DNA from an early human, using a 45,000-year-old thighbone from Siberia and a 40,000-year-old jawbone from a man who lived in what is now eastern Europe and who, Fu’s analysis revealed, had a Neanderthal ancestor among his Homo sapiens forebears.

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  • Christopher Hirata (38)

    Born in Michigan and raised in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Christopher Hirata was barely a teenager in 1996 when he won a gold medal at the International Physics Olympiad. By that time he was taking university-level courses in mathematics and physics, and the following year he enrolled at the California Institute of Technology, and he graduated at the age of 18. While at Caltech, he also participated in research for NASA on ways in which Mars might be colonized. At 22 years of age he had received a doctorate in physics at Princeton University, writing on gravitational lensing. He became a full professor at Caltech at the age of 29, but he moved the following year to the Ohio State University. A pioneer of “precision cosmology,” a blend of computer science and observational astronomy, he earned the Helen B. Warner Prize, which recognizes leading young astronomers, in 2014, two years after winning the Presidential Early Career Award for his contributions to science.

  • Haunani Kane (32)

    Haunani Kane, a native Hawaiian, grew up on the island of Oahu, where she became a competitive surfer as a teenager. She attended Kamehameha Schools, an institution combining academic study with Hawaiian traditions. Her fascination with the ocean led her to study the navigational methods of her Polynesian ancestors. Using these skills, she has sailed thousands of miles across the Pacific, using the setting as an outdoor classroom while documenting the effects of climate change on coral reefs and other oceanic ecosystems. She studied environmental sciences at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, earning a doctorate in geosciences. She is now a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow, studying through the analysis of coral reefs and sediments how Pacific islands respond to environmental stressors. This research in turn sheds light on how the animals and people who live on those islands are affected by changes in sea level and storms.

  • Ibram X. Kendi (38)

    Born in New York City, Ibram X. Kendi grew up there and in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. He attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, a historically Black institution of higher learning, studying journalism and African American studies. He worked in journalism in Virginia before leaving to study for a doctorate in African American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. A leading scholar and historian of race and discriminatory policy in America, he has since taught at numerous universities, including American University and the University of Florida; in 2020 he became the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and founding director of the Center for Antiracist Research there. His best-selling book How to Be an Antiracist was published in 2019, the same year that he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Another book of his, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the National Book Award in 2016. He is active as a journalist as well, writing features and commentaries for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He lives in Boston with his wife, a pediatric emergency physician.

  • Marie Kondo (36)

    Born in Tokyo, Marie Kondo grew up with a passion for cleanliness and organization. When she was a student at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, she founded a consulting business that emphasized personal organization, decluttering, and ridding oneself of things that no longer serve or, as she has made into a slogan, “spark joy.” Rather than clean by room, as many organizational guides have it, Kondo’s method involves taking categories, such as clothing or sentimental keepsakes, and weeding through them relentlessly: “Thank them for their service—then let them go,” she writes. Her Kondo Method has given rise to four best-selling books and numerous online courses, and she is widely recognized for her expertise in what she simply calls “tidying.” Her KonMari brand offers a suite of services, from personal consulting to online courses. Adepts marvel at the changes that her call for a decluttered lifestyle bring. Kondo and her family now live in Los Angeles, from which she travels worldwide to give presentations.

  • Simon Kuestenmacher (33)

    Born in Germany, Simon Kuestenmacher won an all-city award for the best thesis written from Munich’s high schools, examining the economics of photovoltaic energy on city buildings. He studied human geography at the Humboldt University of Berlin, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2009, then moved to Australia and received a master’s degree in urban geography from the University of Melbourne in 2014. In 2017 he founded a demographics consulting group, advising industry and government on population and social trends in the region. A columnist for The Australian newspaper since 2018, he works on demographic trends, patterns of consumption, and cultural change in Australia and Asia. His imaginative curation of maps, infographics, and other content that, as he says on Twitter, “explain how the world works” have earned him a large following. He is now studying the likely shape of Australian society in the wake of COVID-19.

  • Alan Jay Levinovitz (39)

    Born in the Bay Area, his mother a lawyer and his father a real estate developer, Alan Levinovitz found himself fascinated as a teenager by how it was that we come to believe the things that we do, a matter that involves what he later termed “ultraprocessed information”—in other words, predigested thoughts that one can accept whole. Having whetted what he calls his “information taste buds” with this intellectual problem, he went to Stanford to study philosophy. While on a year abroad in Spain, he found himself increasingly drawn to Chinese thought, and so he moved to China and taught English there for two years while learning to speak and read Mandarin. Returning to the United States, he earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Now an associate professor of religion at James Madison University in Virginia, he is the author of Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads (2020), Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science (2020), and other books and papers, with a particular interest in the intersection of philosophy, religion, literature, and science.

  • Sara Minkara (31)

    A native of Massachusetts, Sara Minkara spent her summers in her parents’ native country of Lebanon. She lost her sight at the age of seven and was introduced to a host of programs, medical and social, to help her continue her education and development. She noticed, however, that the same opportunities were not available in Lebanon. While an undergraduate at Wellesley College, she founded a nonprofit firm called Empowerment through Integration, which offers educational opportunities to blind and impaired children in the developing world. She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley and a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She is a popular speaker, addressing topics such as disability inclusion, international development, and the empowerment of marginalized people. “I’m Muslim, blind, American and woman,” she told Inkline. “I have so many stigmas attached to me.” But, she adds, knowing that she belongs in the conversation prevents her from being marginalized herself, an attitude she hopes to impart to others.

  • Bao Nakashima (15)

    Bao Nakashima was mercilessly bullied at school after his family moved to Tokyo when he was eight years old. He decided to stop attending, initially being homeschooled, and then he decided to create his own curriculum so that he would focus on particular authors and subjects and attend as many seminars on them as he could locate in the metropolis. At the age of nine he contacted the editor who had worked with Marie Kondo to publish her popular books on organizing and decluttering. The editor encouraged Bao to write his thoughts and share them, and they became the book Seeing, Knowing, Thinking, which was published in 2016. Filled with apothegms such as “Even in the same place, if you look in a different direction, you will see a different view,” it became an immediate best seller in Japan. It has since been translated into several languages. While he was writing his book, Bao was accepted into the ROCKET Project, a program for gifted children supported by the Nippon Foundation and the University of Tokyo.

  • Len Necefer (33)

    Born into the Diné, or Navajo, people, Len Necefer attended high school at the Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico. He went on to receive a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Kansas at Lawrence in 2011, followed by a doctorate in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. Befitting his wide-ranging interests, Necefer codirected the film Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee (2019), which documented the effects of a federal energy project on an indigenous community, and has testified before the U.S. Congress to protect Native American rights in the face of energy and resource development. While working in materials science and other areas, he founded NativesOutdoors, an outdoor products manufacturer devoted to the cultural and economic empowerment of indigenous people. He has conducted research at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An avid mountaineer, he is currently an assistant professor of Native American studies and, jointly, public policy at the University of Arizona.

  • Tamara Patton (31)

    Raised in Oahu, Hawaii, Tamara Patton studied international relations at the University of Washington. It was while taking a course with retired diplomat and ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr., that she became interested in the subject that has been her overarching field of study ever since: nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. After earning a master’s degree in nonproliferation studies from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, she worked as a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, focusing on arms control issues across the spectrum of weapon classes, from conventional to nuclear, and at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, where she focused on using technologies such as satellite imagery and virtual reality in nuclear verification. She is now a doctoral student in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, where her dissertation research centers on the use of satellite technology in arms control and verification. She also works on the implementation of international humanitarian law as it relates to the use of weaponry.

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  • Brandon Stanton (36)

    Raised in Marietta, Georgia, Brandon Stanton studied history at the University of Georgia, then worked in finance in Chicago. Always interested in the arts, he decided to become a professional photographer and in 2010 moved to New York City. There he developed the “Humans of New York” project, approaching people on the street and asking both to take their photograph and to hear some story from their lives. The result was a crowd-raised book of oral history, as well as a heavily trafficked Web site with more than 25 million followers. He built on the success of his New York project with travels around the world, releasing the book Humans in 2020, made up of images and stories gathered in more than 30 countries. He has also devoted himself to humanitarian causes, raising more than $1 million to help support Rohingya refugees who have fled from Burma (Myanmar) to neighboring Bangladesh. In 2014 he was honored with the James Joyce Award by the University College Dublin Literary and Historical Society.

  • Matthew Yglesias (39)

    Born to Cuban and Ashkenazi parents in New York City, his father a screenwriter and novelist, Matthew Yglesias graduated from the Dalton School and Harvard University, where he studied philosophy. He moved to Washington, D.C., upon graduating in 2003, and there he began to write for such publications as The American Prospect and The Atlantic Monthly, eventually branching out into economics and public policy. He later became a business correspondent for Slate.com and then, in 2014, cofounded Vox.com. Though his political stance is to the left overall, Yglesias has proved difficult to pin down: he was widely criticized, for instance, for signing a petition against “cancel culture,” and his last book, One Billion Americans (2020), takes a contrarian view on the matter of population, arguing that only by expanding the population base through immigration and natural increase will the United States remain a leading economic and political power.

  • Ashley Rose Young (32)

    Raised in the Pittsburgh area, Ashley Young earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a master’s degree and doctorate from Duke University, all in history. A cultural and social historian of the United States, her research explores the intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender in American food culture and economy, research that she conducts as part of her work as the historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. She is also the host of the museum’s “Cooking Up History” program, in which guest chefs and home cooks from many traditions demonstrate their skills and techniques before live audiences. Among those guests have been Carla Hall of The Chew and Top Chef, Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook, and Aarón Sánchez of Chopped. She is now among the Smithsonian historians gathering oral history testimonials about the COVID-19 pandemic. Her book Nourishing Networks: The Public Culture of Food in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans and the Nation is forthcoming.

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