TWIN FALLS — Kylie Hansen grew up gazing at stars through the telescope at the College of Southern Idaho’s Centennial Observatory.
For as long as she can remember, the 18-year-old has been interested in science. She’s curious about the world around her and loves asking questions.
That sparked an interest in astronomy and astrophysics. And that led to participating in nationwide science programs and ultimately, a seat at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Hansen, a senior at Twin Falls High School, will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., this fall to study physics. It’s one of the toughest schools in the country to get into, with just a 7 percent acceptance rate.
She found out around mid-November she’d been accepted. Her parents were out of town that weekend, but she shared the good news with them via Skype and celebrated with her brother.
“It was just like super exciting,” she told the Times-News on Tuesday during her advisory class at Twin Falls High, wearing an MIT sweatshirt. “I wish there was confetti to throw, but there wasn’t.”
In addition to majoring in physics, Hansen hopes to study Japanese in college. Her mother is from Japan, but “I haven’t had a lot of exposure here” to the language, she said.
Ultimately, Hansen wants to become an astrophysics researcher or professor. She’d love to be among the first humans to go to Mars someday, whether through NASA or a private aerospace company such as SpaceX.
Nancy Jones, who has been Hansen’s advisory teacher at Twin Falls High for two years, described her as a “self-starter” who is extremely motivated, yet humble. “She’s one of the few kids in her generation who truly believes she can change the world.”
Twin Falls High physics and calculus teacher Candace Wright — who has had Hansen in classes for three years — said her student is “just a great all-around person” and an enthusiastic learner in all aspects of her life.
“It’s mind-blowing how much she has accomplished, but also not surprising because she’s dedicated and passionate,” Wright said.
Hansen has already been exposed to intensive science programs. Over the summer, she participated in a six-week program — Research Science Institute — at MIT. Her mentor was a professor at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Harvard University used to be Hansen’s dream school. But after her experiences this summer, she had a new goal: to get into MIT. And she did.
Last month, Hansen was among 300 high school seniors nationwide — and the only one from Idaho — named a scholar in the nationwide Regeneron Science Talent Search for her work in gravitational microlensing. She received a $2,000 scholarship and Twin Falls High received $2,000.
Hansen spent most of her childhood in Twin Falls after living in Hawaii, Oregon and Massachusetts. Her father is a local pediatrician.
“(My parents) never pushed science on us, which is really interesting,” she said. Growing up, though, her family went to star parties the CSI Observatory. She met observatory manager Chris Anderson, who became her mentor.
Hansen and her brother started volunteering at the Herrett Center for Arts & Science in 2014, including for a springtime astronomy day and spring break craft classes for children.
“They’re both just exceptional kids,” Anderson said. There aren’t a lot of people in that age group who “have their head screwed on that well and are that focused.”
They’re mature and aren’t afraid to work hard, he said. “I fully expect that Kylie is going to be one that some years down the road, she’s going to get in touch with me and tell me what research she’s working on or just got published.”
During her sophomore year of high school, Hansen persuaded Anderson to let her into a telescope operator training class. It’s usually for adults 18 or older. Hansen became certified and has volunteered at the observatory since then.
In 2016, Hansen started doing research about transiting exoplanets to present the following year at an eastern Idaho science fair and she qualified for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles.
Beyond her scientific pursuits, Hansen will be one of the speakers at TEDxTwinFalls in April at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Twin Falls. She plans to speak about going from a girl who thought “Twin Falls didn’t have much potential for me” to accomplishing amazing things, she said.
At Twin Falls High, she’s a member of the quiz bowl team, president of science club for several years and competed in a science Olympiad event, is president and co-founder of Japanese club, and is a member of the school’s environmental club.
Hansen also enjoys writing. She has entered essay contests, and wrote a sci-fi/drama novel “Yumeda,” an Amazon.com e-book.
“I like to be productive,” she said. “It’s probably one of the best feelings for me.”