10-Year-Old Wunderkind Hopes UVA Is Her Launchpad to Space

August 8, 2023
Linda Pistun portrait in front of the Rotunda

Linda Pistun, just 10 years old, is earning eight credits at UVA this summer. (All photos contributed)

She answered the phone with one, perky word: “Hi!”

Perhaps a more childlike greeting than you’d expect from a bona fide genius and a member of Mensa, which means her IQ is at least in the 98th percentile of test takers.

But it makes more sense when you know her age – she’s 10 – and that she’s, in fact, way smarter than most people in the high-IQ society.

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But Linda Pistun doesn’t know her IQ score because her parents won’t tell her. She and two of her brothers are off-the-charts smart, and Mom and Dad don’t want to start a squabble.

Mother Katie Pistun offered a second reason. Linda – a newly published author – is starting to attract media attention. “Her psychologist recommended that we not give her the actual number until she is an adult,” Katie Pistun said. “People like to compare her to other child prodigies or famous people in history, and we want to remove as much of that pressure as possible while she’s little.”

Linda came to UVA Today’s attention because of her Instagram.


A post shared by Linda’s Lab (@lindaslab)

As you can see, she’s been busy this summer participating in the University of Virginia’s Summer Language Institute, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Pistun is taking Mandarin classes remotely from her home in Gainesville, but she came to Grounds one day last month for a calligraphy workshop and picnic.

Pistun with her first book

Pistun’s love of reading and science led her to write her first book about carbon footprints.

“It was really fun, and it was just so interesting,” she said. “I love doing the calligraphy and learning about the different brush strokes.”

It was the first time Pistun got to see her teacher and classmates in-person, and she was met with utter disbelief.

“We didn’t know she was only 10!” said Shu-Chen Chen, an associate professor of Chinese and Pistun’s instructor. The possibility had never occurred to Chen. She said previous Zoom sessions didn’t give away Pistun’s age because, like many students, she uses a blurry background to obscure everything but her face.

The Summer Language Institute is an intensive program that meets five days a week for up to 4 hours a day. Students cover two semesters worth of material between June and August, earning eight college credits. Linda also is taking a high school economics class this summer, which Chen says makes her accomplishments even more remarkable. “She is amazing and willing to go beyond the textbook to learn more expressions,” Chen said.

Pistun with her Mandarin instructor

Pistun came to Grounds last month for a calligraphy workshop put on by her Mandarin instructor, Shu-Chen Chen, an associate professor of Chinese.

This isn’t Pistun’s first time at UVA. She’s attended the Saturday Enrichment Program, run by the School of Education and Human Development, since she was 6.

What’s it like to be the youngest person in a college-level class? “Well, to be totally honest, I’m kind of used to it. All these years I’ve always been the one to walk in the room and be asked ‘Are you supposed to be here? Are you lost?’” said Pistun, who stands 53 inches tall. “I just find it kind of funny.”

Why Such a Grown-Up Name for Such a Young Person?

Linda Pistun is named for her grandmother, Linda Franklin. Franklin was killed Oct. 14, 2002, by the so-called “D.C. snipers,” a boy and a man who terrorized the region in October of that year, randomly murdering 10 people. Franklin and her husband William had been loading home improvement supplies into her car at a Home Depot parking lot in Falls Church.

Pistun posing in the snow outside of Dell

Pistun has attended UVA’s Saturday Enrichment Program since she was 6. She began wearing bow ties as a homage to Bill Nye the Science Guy. “She has a ton of them,” said her mother, Katie Pistun.

Franklin was brilliant, a math and science teacher before she joined the FBI as an analyst. “She was the funniest, most fiery, most amazing person you could meet,” said Katie, mother to the younger Linda and daughter of the elder. “And Linda is so much like her. She loves that even random science tied them together from the beginning.”

And Linda Pistun got something else from her grandmother. Mother Katie and her three sons have brown eyes. “But Linda got the recessive gene. She has my mom’s hazel eyes,” Katie said.

Favorite Book: ‘The Origin of Species’

Yes, you read that correctly.

The younger Pistun’s best-loved book is Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. “I learned about it from one of my other favorite books from when I was a little kid,” the 10-year-old explained. “It’s very interesting what Charles Darwin wrote.”

It all makes sense. Pistun’s favorite subject is math, followed by science, just like her hazel-eyed namesake grandmother.

Now she’s taken her talent and funneled it into her newest accomplishment: published author.

“Linda and the Mysterious Footprints” takes readers on a journey using the scientific method to discover what is causing black footprints all over Linda’s town. It’s making its way to local bookstores and can also be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and soon, at the UVA Bookstore.

Pistun dressed up as Darwin

When she was 5, Pistun dressed as her hero, Charles Darwin, for Halloween. She even named her pet turtle Darwin.

In her spare time, Pistun plays the violin and the piano. “I decided to play the violin because Albert Einstein played it and it helped him think,” she said. “It actually does help me think, just like Albert Einstein.”

As for her future, Pistun has it all planned out. The prodigy, who skipped three full grades and six grades in math, is starting high school this fall at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Then her sights are set on UVA, where she wants to study astrophysics. The goal is to enroll as a full-time student when she is 14. She’s well on her way, front-loading college credits. Once she finishes her Mandarin class at UVA, she will have accumulated 18 hours, including credits in math and science.

The plan is to use her UVA degree to apply to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, with the ultimate goal of landing a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is based at the Pasadena, California, school.

“Since UVA is such a great school, I feel like that will look really good on my résumé,” she said.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications