Paulina Chávez isn't a rocket scientist, but she plays one on TV.
In Netflix's The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia, Chávez stars as a 15-year-old math and engineering whiz — and the world's youngest PhD — who moves across the country to California to live with her uncle after she lands a job designing robotics for the Mars Rover.
Her love of the periodic table aside — which she describes as "sort of like math, but much more interesting" — Chávez is hardly a STEM geek. She is, however, finding herself more and more in her element. "We've had some amazing robotics experts come in from NASA and JPL," she says. "It was really fascinating, and I wish we could have even more of them helping us out behind the scenes."
A Texas native who joined drama club in second grade and was soon landing big roles in pint-sized productions of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, Chávez is also feeling more at home on the set. "This is not only my first sitcom, it's also my first time shooting for a live studio audience," she explains. "I was very nervous in the beginning, but once I realized it was a lot like being on stage, I settled right in."
As for working with big names like Mario Lopez and Eva Longoria, Chávez admits she was starstruck, but soon came to see them — and the rest of the cast and crew — as one big family.
"We've gotten pretty close," she says of Lopez, the show's cocreator–executive producer (with Seth Kurland). "Mario's like my older brother, but the awesome, hilarious kind you can tease and mess around with."
Longoria, who directed several episodes, "is just a beam of light who believes in everyone and lifts them up," Chávez adds. "Eva's amazing because she does it all — acting, producing and directing. Watching her has inspired me to try and do the same." Playing a Latina brainiac who breaks all the stereotypes, Chávez is aware she has become a role model as well.
"Going into this as a 17-year-old, I knew I was going to have that responsibility," she says. "I've talked to many young women who have told me how much it means to them to see a character like Ashley. I think the show has helped young girls and young Latinos see that they can be actors or rocket scientists or have whatever careers they set their minds to."
Chávez, who recently wrapped a holiday movie for Lifetime, Feliz Navidad, admits there are days when she still can't quite believe how her life has taken off. "It's pretty surreal," she says. "It's also a lot of fun
This article originally appreared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2020