Realizations about Physics and Future Direction

The past two months have started a chain of changes. I was accepted into Columbia University for a second Bachelor’s degree in Materials Science Engineering. Starting next fall, I will be there for two years. I was accepted into a three-month research program in Austria. I have never been to Europe. On top of it all, I was given the Barry Goldwater Scholarship. I didn’t think I had a chance. My sense of self has lagged behind in processing all that is happening, all that has happened, and all that will happen. In just three months, I will find myself in a completely new university in a city whose name is known all over the world. I will have to make new friends and adjust to the academic environment. I’m writing this from my bedroom in Vienna as I struggle to keep up with physics research and think about what I will do with my time in Europe.

What is the sense of self that I will bring to these new places? Who am I? What has happened in the past three years, who have I become, who am I now, and what do I want to do next? These questions race in my head every night as I commute on the public transit from work to home. I can’t answer these questions now, but I had a realization as I was walking back today and wanted to write it down.

I’ve had three research experiences: thermoelectrics in Louisiana, flexible electronics in Japan, and now, quantum integrated devices in Austria. In thermoelectrics research, it is all about optimizing the figure of merit so that the material can be used in human devices. In flexible electronics, it’s about optimizing the carrier mobility of organic semiconductors amongst other factors in order to create a better performing transistor to be used in human devices. In quantum integrated devices, it’s about high quality (Q) factors in photonic crystal resonators amongst other pieces to create a device that can change the realm of future human communications. Through it all, physics has always been about optimizing a certain material or parameter for its use in a device for humans. That’s physics. Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?

I’ve never been interested in science for science’s sake. I think science is incredibly fascinating and I could go on and on about Maxwell’s macroscopic electromagnetic equations as the basis for incredible photonic crystal applications or the use of a dye laser in analyzing the energy eigenstates of ultracold RbCa molecule, but that’s not my purpose. I’ve always been interested in one thing: how can science be used for the betterment of people. Specifically, in senior year of high school, I asked myself how can I make the most amount of people happy and smile? Seeing other people happy gives me a happiness that fills me with warmth and fullness. That hasn’t changed. But physics doesn’t seem to get me to my goal. Physics is about the optimization of a certain material or parameter for us in devices. Generally, seeing a laboratory’s discovery realized in the real world takes years if not decades. There are instances where this is not the case such as certain research being conducted in more applied research groups such as that of Dr. Evan Thomas at PSU, Dr. Vijay Modi at Columbia, and Dr. Manu Prakash at Stanford. But is academia really where I want to base my impact in?

I’ve always dreamed of starting a social enterprise, being a social entrepreneur, creating a product that would revolutionize the lives of those in need. I’ve always seen the privilege built on the hard labor of my parents to be used to help those without the privilege I was given; those who aren’t food secure, house secure, safety secure and those who don’t have access to education, mentors, and opportunities. I was given what I was given so that I can give to others; to pour the love poured into me into others. But this current path of physics and research isn’t getting me exactly there.

I started down this path on physics because in the beginning I had nothing. I wasn’t a great student, I was scared of physics in high school, and horrible in mathematics. I needed to face my fears and so at the beginning of college, I asked myself, how much can you better yourself in three years? I tackled my fears first: physics and mathematics. The path that opened was then one of physics research starting with Louisiana and then Japan and now Austria. That’s how I ended up on this path which is garnering me a lot of momentum. There are no words that can express the gratitude toward the teachers in my life. Physics research is a path I can pursue. I could see myself doing a PhD. But that part of me that tugs at me is the side of me that wants to work with people and make tangible impact.

In my ideal work, I want to create technology, empower individuals, and build community. Bringing people together is powerful. My challenge now is to bridge the worlds of science and people directly. The simplest answer is to let go of all the momentum in research I’ve built up in the past three years but I want to know how I can leverage that momentum to best pivot me towards my ideal work. To do this, I will focus all my efforts on finding an internship next summer that is based on technology and building communities. This opportunity would be different from the academic and lab based research I’ve been involved in for the past three years. My world would slowly shift from that of equations and theory to hands-on prototyping and social issues.

To be more accurate though, three years ago I did write down that I would spend three years getting the best I could at physics and then two years at engineering school to start this work of technology and people. The past three years, I’ve always been aware of this transition. I wanted it to happen the summer of freshmen and sophomore year. Pockets of impatience leaked out in leading spring break social justice trips and my reading list each summer. Curtailing my impatience has taught me a lot about the benefits of sticking to a goal.

For the next two years, my goal will now shift. I will take all that I have learned about social justice and sustainability and more consciously find avenues to integrate them with my science discipline. I don’t know what that will look like, how exactly I will bridge science, technology, and building communities but there is something quite special about uncertainty isn’t there? To be the author that pens their own life, traversing the uncertainties, and experiencing the joys, happiness, and struggle of it all; to me that’s exciting, daunting, and what makes life all the more beautiful.