When I was young, my mom often dropped me off at my grandma’s house on her way to work. My grandma and I would spend the day watching Stargate SG-1 together (If you haven’t seen it, I highly suggest it but beware, there are ten seasons, several affiliated movies, and additional spin-offs). The show was so engrossing, even at a young age, that it quickly became one of my favorite shows. After watching for some time, I realized that my favorite episodes were the ones that revolved around the scientific conflicts. Then I realized that of those “science episodes”, the ones that dealt with time dilation, wormhole physics, and other stuff that messed with the very fabric of reality, were the ones that really captured my interest. At some point, I remember thinking to myself “I want to get my PhD in physics and do what Samantha Carter does. Fast forward to when I started college.
When I first started college, I knew I wanted to study physics. So on the first day, I went to the physics department and I declared my major. Now, the physics coursework, where most courses are only offered once a year, starts with taking introductory physics and calculus at the same time, but I wasn’t able to take calculus when I started. So I had to take beginning pre-calculus (two classes behind calculus) before anything else. Since I started only part of a year behind in math, by the time I started physics in my sophomore year, I was actually ahead in math (taking multivariable calculus when others were taking beginning calculus). Even though the hiccup turned out to be a silver lining, this was only the first step in a certainly nonlinear experience.
Jump forward to winter quarter my junior year at WWU, I’m now fully in a love/hate relationship with physics. I really struggled this quarter (thinking back now, a big chunk of that was probably due to seasonal affective disorder and overloading myself) and ended up not passing Modern Physics, which is only offered once a year. I knew my dream was to do physics and study the universe, so I decided to persevere and stay the extra year to try again. During that time, since there weren’t any physics classes I could take yet, I decided to also pursue a degree in math.
For a while, this was great! I was just taking math and only focusing on one thing at a time. Then winter came around again, and I had to fight the beast that is the never-ending string of dark, cold days in winter-ridden Bellingham. By now, my original friends, whom I had struggled with the first time, were all in different classes (though we all still hung out outside of class), and I was retaking Modern Physics with mostly new people. Struggling for the second time, I managed to come out on top.
Now I’ve graduated with those new people who I now call friends, a B.S. in physics and a B.S. in math, and a minor in astronomy. I also had the opportunity to conduct original physics research with Dr. Brandon Peden on the theory of ultra-cold molecules. This work actually won me a grant from the physics department to research full-time over this past summer, and the “Best Poster” award for an undergraduate at the recent APS Northwest meeting. I also got to present on it in Milwaukee at DAMOP. I was also lucky enough, for my whole six-year college career, to have had a steady and necessary job assisting faculty. And now I, obviously, am blogging for Spark Science to help communicate science to the world.
All in all, I did struggle quite a lot, and it definitely wasn’t easy to justify (both mentally and financially) staying two extra years more than the traditional four-year college experience. I was very lucky that I had numerous supportive friends, a department and faculty that I knew really cared about me, and a dream that I had the financial support to pursue. Now that the undergrad chapter of my life has finished, I just want to thank my friends and the faculty of the WWU Physics & Astronomy Department. Even though there are dark times (where sometimes it seems like there’s no light at the end of the never-ending tunnel), you can definitely overcome the unforeseen roadblocks and maybe even find some helpful detours.
- Nathan Chapman (WWU 2019 Graduate – BS Physics & Math)
Image credit: Stargate SG-1 TV Review – Plugged In