Small But Mighty: Cracking the Code

The 18-year-old has been coding since Grade 2. She's now an aerospace cybersecurity expert interning at NASA.

At just seven years old, Angelina Tsuboi discovered her passion for innovation. It all began with a simple maze game she coded in her Los Angeles public school’s Grade 2 class. “I was enthralled by the entire experience,” she says.

Today, at 18, the Grade 12 student is not only a mobile and web developer proficient in more than 20 programming languages, but a pilot with a keen interest in aerospace cybersecurity. Her initial curiosity has evolved into a deep-seated desire to use technology to solve real-world problems. “I think a lot of kids feel trapped because they don’t know how their actions could actually change the world,” she says.

In 2021, as a 10th grader at Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, California, she co-developed Megaphone, one of her first apps, to tackle frustrations like unanswered post-class queries, scheduling issues and poor communication about events and announcements.

Her problem-solving momentum kept building from there. When she took online CPR classes at the start of the pandemic, she figured it couldn’t be just her who was struggling with the steps. So she created an app called CPR Buddy—a winner in the 2022 Apple Swift Challenge—which guides users through CPR using vibrations to regulate compression and breathing cadence.

After winning the award, Angelina presented her work to Apple CEO Tim Cook, a highlight in her young career, but one she didn’t lose her cool over. “There’s no point putting people on a pedestal,” she says.

The next year, Angelina built an app called Lilac, designed to assist non-English-speaking single parents with resources for housing, job opportunities, and translation support. She was inspired by her own experiences as a child of a single mother who immigrated to the U.S. from Japan.

When Angelina decided to pursue pilot training at the age of 16, she was struck by how difficult it was to find financial support, which spurred her to create yet another app, Pilot Fast Track, which helps aspiring pilots find scholarships for flight training.

Looking to the future, besides applying to colleges with great labs (MIT is a top pick), Angelina is exploring the realm of aerospace cybersecurity and mechatronics—blending computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. She completed a NASA summer internship last summer, where she worked on aerospace cybersecurity projects.

Angelina admits she doesn’t sleep much (six hours a night) and has never been to a high school party, but she has her priorities. Her advice to other young people who want to solve problems? Think positively.

“There’s not enough optimism in the world,” she says. “I have also been in situations in my life where I’ve lost a lot of hope. But in the end, it is a mindset, and there are ways in any situation you’re in to make it somewhat better.”

Next, read about kids who are really cleaning up.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada