Published June 25, 2015
An applied mathematics and physics whiz whose innate gift to do mathematical formulas in his head confounded his teachers in his formative years, is the latest in the impressive roll call of UB students awarded world-class academic scholarships and fellowships this year.
Sean Bearden, who graduated from UB this May majoring in physics and applied mathematics, received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship for three years that easily will exceed $100,000. Bearden, who also won a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in 2014, will study properties of spin lasers, which are used to create highly focused laser beams, at the University of California, San Diego.
Bearden was named the Outstanding Senior in the Department of Physics at his graduation ceremonies. Besides the Goldwater Scholarship — one of the premier scholarships in the country — Bearden earned membership in the Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Pi Sigma honor societies. He also is the Sloan Scholar at UC-San Diego, and will receive a $40,000 fellowship from the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring.
For Bearden, 30, of the Town of Tonawanda, these tremendous scholarly successes are the latest in a sequence of unusual and contrasting events that began with him shattering the expectations of his elementary school teachers. He then continued his nontraditional path to becoming one of the most accomplished UB students of 2014-15 by dropping out of high school and pleading guilty to attempted assault. A more-than-six-year prison term somehow fostered a fascination with quantum mechanics, which led to a renewed “drive” to salvage his life.
Along the way, he mentored other promising UB physics students, revived UB’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students, served as public relations officer for the UB Combined Martial Arts Club and made a lasting connection with an eccentric, but brilliant great uncle, a physicist who told Bearden no one would take his research and ideas seriously until he earned his PhD.
“I think Sean Bearden is a story of redemption and how education is the way out of difficult situations,” says Elizabeth A. Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships for UB, whose office just finished a banner year sponsoring three Fulbright winners, three Goldwater Scholarship winners and a recipient of the prestigious Boren Scholarship. “Sean took full advantage of all the opportunities UB offers talented students.”
“To see how someone can change his life in this way and become a dedicated physicist is incredible,” wrote one referee judging Bearden’s NSF application. “I am impressed by the change he underwent in his life and believe he would be a great ambassador for the overused sentence, ‘If you believe in yourself, you can do everything.’”
For Bearden, the NSF fellowship is the most recent life marker in a story that sounds like a physics version of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.
Bearden clearly remembers a substitute fourth-grade teacher at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Tonawanda accusing him of cheating after he solved three-digit multiplication problems in his head. When the substitute demanded he admit to cheating, his classmates stood up for him, Bearden says.
“No, no, no,” Bearden remembers them telling the substitute. “He can do that.”
Bearden’s ability to astound those around him continued at Franklin Middle School. He remembers eighth-grade teacher David Dlugosz, a “fun” math teacher loved by all his students, even those who hated math.
“I used to answer things just by looking at the board,” Bearden says. “No work or anything. There was a corner of the board dedicated to the times I was wrong because it was so rare. It wasn’t to belittle me. It was almost a way of teaching me to slow down.”
Bearden might be the most candid and introspective NSF physics scholar to ever come out of SUNY. He knew early on people couldn’t help but notice something different about him. He knew he was smart. But people around him were talking about “a gift.”
“Everyone always says that to a kid. ‘Oh, you’re so smart,’” he says. “You don’t tell kids they’re dumb. So I could always see a different side to it. To me, it wasn’t a gift. This was normal. I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t do it.”
Junior high was also the time when Bearden’s non-conformity turned dark. From the start, he hung out with kids parents would tell their children to avoid. The first day of ninth grade, Bearden left school at lunch with some older kids.
“We just walked out of school, and we did it, and then we came back,” Bearden says. “That kind of opened a door to ‘I don’t have to do school anymore.’”
Within a week, he got kicked out of Honor’s Math.
Bearden talks of significant moments with the verbal patience and faculty his English-major mother would appreciate. This introduction to ninth grade was pivotal, he says. He got expelled from Kenmore East High School before he made it through ninth grade, then got kicked or dropped out of two more alternative high school programs.
When he was 17, he was delivering pizzas in North Buffalo, still going down the wrong path, he says, not finding joy or a spark in anything education could offer. Instead of conforming, he realized for the first time he could do whatever he wanted.
“My life had no direction,” he wrote in his NSF application. “I often found myself in trouble with law enforcement.”
When he was 19, Bearden got into a confrontation at a gas station near his North Buffalo apartment. He pulled an unregistered handgun on the man confronting him when he felt he was “in too deep” and couldn’t get away any other way. The district attorney told his lawyer he would be charged with attempted murder, a charge for which Bearden believes he would have been found not guilty. But he would have faced up to 15 years for the unlicensed gun, even if he was cleared of attempted murder. So he pleaded guilty to attempted assault rather than being charged with attempted murder, and in 2005 began an eight-year prison sentence.
While in prison, he started reading books. And there, unlike wherever else he had been, he found what he calls a “drive,” a “joy” or a “groove” that had eluded him throughout his previous life.
He read constantly, mostly non-fiction books about science. And the more he read, the more he realized those people who had treated him differently were on to something.
“I knew I was gifted in math,” he says. “I knew it. And it was like, ‘What am I going to do with that?’”
He remembers scoring a 99 on an IQ test in prison. He had tested before at 136, so he was “devastated” thinking he had lost his intelligence.
“So I started cooking up a game plan. This is what I have that I see nobody else around me has. So what can I do with it?”
At the time, he knew very little about mathematics at the university level. But he started to think about physics problems and the intellectual challenge appealed to him. Stuck in jail for years, Bearden had nothing but time. “Let’s give it a shot,” he told himself.
He also was very close to his mother, who sent him as many books and studying materials as he could use. She researched how he could earn an independent learning degree. She also told him about his “kooky” great uncle, who wrote extensively about edgy physics properties, such as perpetual motion, that caught Bearden’s attention. Bearden’s mother, still living in Tonawanda, contacted the uncle, and the two men started writing back and forth. The uncle was adamant about one thing: Nobody would listen to anything Bearden said, valid or not, because he didn’t have a PhD. He couldn’t publish. All his study meant nothing without the conventional education.
Bearden became fascinated with the idea of quantum mechanics, the area of physics that deals with matter at the smallest nanoscopic scale. Exchanging ideas with his uncle, Bearden became absorbed with how this brand of physics defied logical arguments.
“The electrons are everywhere and nowhere at once,” he says. “They exist in a cloud they call probability, and you can never say where one thing is or isn’t. You can’t prove it wrong and you can’t say anything for certain. It’s just weird.”
So with this awakening passion for chasing knowledge, Bearden earned his associate’s degree from Ohio University while in Collins Correctional Facility, and in 2012 enrolled in UB to study physics and applied mathematics, surprised the university accepted him because of his criminal record.
Prison gave Bearden a different perspective than other UB freshmen. He still was the guy in the back row, looking like he wasn’t paying attention. But something clearly caught on at UB. Bearden’s trouble-seeking but John Nash-like beautiful mind found the joy, drive, groove or whatever else he calls it. And just like the teachers at Benjamin Franklin, the professors at UB saw something unusual, extraordinary in him. And this time, that mind was in a place where it would do him — and others — some good.
“I look at a lot of freshmen doing the freshman thing. And if I came to college at 18 years old — you should have seen me when I was 18; I was way worse than anything these kids are doing,” he says. “So for me, it’s best to be here now. Because I doubt I would have won any of the scholarships I have won because I would have wanted to party. I would have wanted to hang out with girls and go to the bar. Now, I can just focus. If there is something fun happening, I can say, ‘No, I got to do this. I got to do that. I got to study.’”
Bearden became a volunteer tutor for undergraduates in the physics department. He brought new life and cache to the UB chapter of the Society of Physics Students as president and then mentor to other officers. He organized more activities, such as increasing tutoring and student Q-and-A sessions with distinguished speakers. He has been a College of Arts and Sciences’ ambassador for physics and mathematics, besides being the public relations officer for the UB Combined Martial Arts Club.
And once again, his ability stretched the credibility of his teachers. This time, it was the top faculty in the university’s physics department. One of Bearden’s chief advocates is Professor Igor Zutic, who invited Bearden to join his highly competitive research group after Bearden was the only student who got a perfect score on a test assessing students’ mathematical preparation.
“While there are other outstanding students who have become extremely proficient in using mathematical methods, what sets Sean apart is his unwavering desire to understand novel phenomena and being fearless when it comes to obstacles he has to overcome,” Zutic says.
“He is prepared to calmly deal with his own setbacks in tackling a research project, or patiently hone his skills identifying the key questions that he wants to answer. I expect that his exceptional life experience and the prior adversity he had to overcome played a crucial role. These unique circumstances seem to have ensured that what would have broken others is only making Sean stronger.”
Colucci calls him an “amazing young man” who came to UB and went on to “spectacular academic success.” If colleges and universities seek to dramatically change the arc of someone’s life, she says, no one is a better example of that than Bearden.
“The level of work as an undergraduate was that of an advanced graduate student,” says Colucci. “This fellowship provides freedom to focus on research without distraction.”
Bearden left for San Diego June 20 to work as a graduate student researcher in condensed matter experimental physics with internationally known physicist Dmitri Basov, who Bearden says has attracted more grants than anyone else in the department. Bearden will begin by learning about the university’s one-of-a-kind, low-temperature nano-infrared setup, which is coupled to ultra-fast lasers. The system is used in ultra-fast nanoscopy.
Like the Bob Dylan song says, Bearden still feels pressure to serve somebody. But this time, it’s an audience far different from the ones he fiercely defied as a youth.
“There is a part of me that feels like I can’t fail,” Bearden says. “My dream was to go to UB to study physics and keep going. I didn’t know if UB would ever let me in. But I pursued it, and people who were watching TV in prison while I was sitting there studying noticed. I almost became someone like ‘If you can’t do it, nobody can.’ I had to live up to this to show them they could do something, too.”
Bearden still has more than a touch of the poet in him.
“Physics relates to everything in the natural world,” Bearden told an interviewer after winning the Goldwater Scholarship. “It’s almost mystical in a way — it’s incredible that something like math, that’s man-made, can describe the universe around us.”