Andrew Melo (MLK, ’03) has the same built-in curiosity as you and I. He’s just a little more trained to follow it into areas unknown, like, say, particle physics.
“It's human nature to be curious about the world around us and fundamental research is one of the purest expressions of that curiosity,” Andrew told me about his work with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment that made so many headlines last week. “It's awe-inspiring that humanity has reached the point where we can produce and detect particles that only exist for a thousandth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. It's really an exciting time, and I wonder what we'll figure out next.”
Andrew is a PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt University, working with a team at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago on experiments happening on the other side of the globe at CERN. In case you hadn’t heard, CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory and the epicenter for experiments on the very foundations of our universe.
But first he was a Metro Schools student, from start to finish: Una Elementary, Meigs Magnet, and on to Martin Luther King Magnet, where he discovered his affinity for the world of physics.
“I wasn't even planning on studying physics when I went to undergrad,” he said. “I took two years of AP Physics at MLK, and as a freshman at Sewanee I used my AP credits to start out in the sophomore-level electronics lab. After that, I was hooked, and I decided to double major in physics and computer science.
“[Taking AP classes] was hard at times, but being able to test out of several intro courses helped put me ahead in college and allowed me to take classes I would normally not have time for.”
As a young student Andrew had passions across disciplines, picked up from a host of wonderful teachers. “I was fortunate enough to have numerous teachers that not only prepared me academically, but also passed on a thirst for knowledge. I probably wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for the prodding of Mrs. Adcox, Mrs. Berry, Ms. Hunter, or Mrs. MacDonald to go beyond and to learn for learning's sake.
“I took German from Mrs. MacDonald, hosted foreign exchange students, and traveled with our class to Germany one summer. Because of her love for the German language and German culture, I ended up sticking with it and took German classes at Sewanee until I was able to read Kafka and Brecht. [Mrs. MacDonald] and others like her really nudged me to take that extra step to really keep with things because I enjoyed them, not because I had to.”
What he enjoyed was the total school experience – books, sports, and even serving as MLK’s first official mascot. He’s carried that passion through to his work today on the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. Though he didn't directly work on the Higgs boson discovery that grabbed the world's attention, he has worked with a variety of subjects and tasks for CMS at LHC that would make most of our heads spin.
“I've spent the last few years measuring one of our backgrounds, quantifying some particle identification algorithms, maintaining the supercomputer at Vanderbilt, and developing the experiment's offline computing framework -- responsible for processing tens of millions of gigabytes of data on our globally distributed computing resources.”
Read more about Vanderbilt's work with CERN.
That devotion for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields is evident in the way he talks about science and what it can give to our society. While experiments like the ones happening at CERN may not directly cure any diseases or produce the next iPhone, the research and development that go into them have tangential benefits that can be felt for centuries.
“If you look back at the 20th century, a lot of inventions, prestige and wealth were generated by the strength of America's science output,” he told me. “American research labs and universities provided not only enormous contributions to humanity as a whole, but also made us a center for knowledge and industry, along with the accompanying collateral effects.”
The future of these contributions, he believes, lies in our commitment to STEM education and how far our students are willing to pursue it.
“I think that providing the right education, support and resources to students interested in STEM will help to continue to excel in the future.”
So how can today’s students become tomorrow’s STEM superstars?
“In general, but especially if you want to be in an STEM field, one of the most important things you can do is to get as much experience as possible, as early as possible. There are tons of programs set up to support students. If you look around, everything from summer internships to doctoral fellowships are offered by companies, schools and the government. I spent a summer making diamonds at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and had a great time. There are a lot of people doing what they can to help the next generation of students. Take them up on their offers.”