The First First at Top of His Class

J. Sebastian Pineda was the East Hampton High School valedictorian in 2006. He went on to work as a postdoctoral scholar in astronomy at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

In its Feb. 15 edition, The Star erroneously reported that Alexander Pintado was East Hampton High School’s first Latino valedictorian. Nick, as he is known, actually is the school’s second valedictorian of Latino heritage. The first was J. Sebastian Pineda, in 2006.

In an effort to put the record straight, and as an apology, The Star caught up with Dr. Pineda, who is now a postdoctoral scholar in astronomy at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. He is studying magnetic activity in low-mass stars and brown dwarfs, which he explained as “objects that aren’t massive enough to be stars but are much more massive than the largest planets.” 

Dr. Pineda said his work is mostly observational, requiring telescopes around the world and in space to study these stars and brown dwarfs.

The goal, he said, is “to try to understand phenomena on stars less massive than the sun associated with the presence of magnetic fields. On the sun these phenomena are things like flares and sunspots among many others, but how magnetism manifests on these distant objects can be quite different from how it is on the sun. I also think about the implications of these magnetic properties of the star for the exoplanets orbiting around them.”

After graduating at the top of his class in East Hampton, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a double major in mathematics and physics and a minor in astronomy. He then joined the California Institute of Technology, where he received both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

The accomplished 29-year-old scientist was born in Colombia and immigrated to the United States at the age of 4 with his mother, who got a job in a nail salon in East Hampton, where she still lives. Dr. Pineda said he returns home to visit her and his extended family about twice a year, once during the summer and again around Christmas.

He described his high school experience as fairly typical of most East Hampton students, and understated his academic achievements. He pointed out that he was a three-sport athlete throughout high school and that participating in extracurricular clubs and activities, was “pretty standard for students with college aspirations.”

 Dr. Pineda remembered that he was often the only Latino student in the many Advanced Placement classes he took. “That meant that on a regular basis, I didn’t interact with much of the broader Latino student body in class and didn’t get to know many of the students who came from Montauk or Springs,” he said. Dr. Pineda acknowledged that then, as is the case now, his achievements and those of Nick and Jonathan Gomez, who are finishing at the top of their class this year, are a source of pride in the Latino community. He is hopeful that as the Latino student body continues to grow, many more will strive for academic excellence.

David Swickard, a history teacher at East Hampton High School, had the privilege of teaching Dr. Pineda, as well as Nick and Jonathan, this year’s valedictorian and salutatorian. In a letter to The Star, Mr. Swickard wrote that although there had been a previous Latino valedictorian, it “does not diminish the excitement and joy we all have for the success of Nick and Jon, both of whom certainly can look to Dr. Pineda as a model worthy of emulating. Having taught all three of these fine students at the high school, I can see clearly how they will make great contributions to America becoming a greater country than it might otherwise be.”

As for the apology for inadvertently neglecting his valedictorian achievement, Dr. Pineda said, “I appreciate the apology, but I didn’t really mind. I think the point of the story was really above that, focusing on the achievements of two young scholars.”