Even before you have your application in hand, the moment you start thinking about it, I would go talk to an advisor. Start asking, “What kind of experiences are going to help me to win this?” Right from the get-go, you’ve got to start getting involved, it won’t just fall in your lap. You have to chase opportunities down and ideas, that’s what it takes.
I did a dual degree, I got a BS in physics, a BA in math and a minor in classics. I studied ancient Greek language and literature for classics.
The main thing I was involved in was the sailing team, I was the president. I spent most of my time doing that. I also helped to start the UB Science Outreach Program and that has carried on through the physics department.
I am in grad school, I’m at Cornell University. I did a summer research project [at Cornell], so I decided to come back [to Cornell]. I’m currently researching theoretical astrophysics. I study black holes, black hole mergers and gravitational waves. Right now, what we’re studying is the simulation of black hole mergers, so that we can predict gravitational waves and help push the field of gravitational wave astronomy.
Actually, just getting here. I did not come to this school to do this [type of research]. My research in undergrad was all over the place, I did things from extremely applied physics to theoretical physics to even things in the engineering department, so I wasn’t a stranger to hopping fields. UB gave me the confidence that I could jump into a field if I thought it was interesting. So, I got [to Cornell] thinking I wanted to do something else and said, “No wait, this is actually cooler. I’ve done projects in this area before and I want to jump in full-force.” I guess really what sparked it was getting here, talking to the professors, seeing the research that was going on. A lot of the group dynamics, as well.
Yes, I’m working under Saul Teukolsky and I’m involved with the SXS (Simulation of eXtreme Spacetimes) collaboration and the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) collaboration. Those were the ones that made the gravitational waves announcement.
Absolutely, the only reason I’m here is because of UB. [UB] throws a lot of resources at you whenever you’re applying for anything. The reason I came [to Cornell] is partly because I was able to do research at Cornell when I was an undergrad. I think that helped me, in a large part, get my foot in the door. Course-wise, I felt beyond prepared and in research experience, as well. I did a lot of research in my undergrad career early on. [I got to] try a bunch of different fields and get an idea of what I wanted to work on.
Right now, I’m actually keeping it pretty open. The group that I’m in has really good prospects for going into the industry. A lot of the industry prospects are very computational, [like] Google, SpaceX, things like that. But there are also good prospects for academia right now in the field. [Astrophysics] went from being a little oddity of a field … Overnight, it seems, it’s really showed its worth [in regards] to showing its results. It’s going through a huge growth period right now. I’m keeping it open, going to see what happens later on down the road.
I think, practically, the NSF is good because the dialogue when working with professors happens a little bit more naturally when they realize they don’t have to fund you. You’re a little bit more free in what you’re able to pursue. I wouldn’t have been able to do the [research] switch if it wasn’t for NSF. You have a lot more intellectual freedom to pursue what you want to pursue. On a different note, even if I didn’t win the NSF, I think it would still be hugely influential to me. All the preparation that I had to do in order to get to this point, it would have looked good on a resume no matter what. I started thinking about applying in my sophomore year of undergrad and after I walked out of that scholarship dinner, I started working right away, trying to decorate my resume as much as possible. I got involved in everything: research outreach, coursework, just doing that process kind of breeds professionalism. You just start to take yourself seriously.
Anytime you have any application, you should bring it in [to the Office of Fellowships and Scholarships] and they can walk you through it. But even before you have your application in hand, the moment you start thinking about it, I would go talk to an advisor. Start asking, “What kind of experiences are going to help me to win this?” Right from the get-go, you’ve got to start getting involved, it won’t just fall in your lap. You have to chase opportunities down and ideas, that’s what it takes.