A Student's Story: Choosing a Path in Science

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Air, space and sun. Do those sound like the interests of a dreamer, a lightweight? Well, not if your interests run to astrophysics and solar technology. You may know someone like that if you’ve worked with Adam Trebach at PrepMatters. Adam is one of PM’s tutors and hopes to add more clients to his schedule this year (via Skype), even though he will be entering the second year of his MIT Ph.D. program in computational physics – but we get ahead of ourselves.

Adam’s story began a few short years ago when, as a junior at Georgetown Day School, he was trying to figure out where he wanted to go to college and how to bolster his chances for the schools he wanted to attend. He prepped for his ACT (with Ned Johnson as it happens) and was rewarded with some good choices. He took a close look at three – the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University and Washington University in St. Louis (and particularly the last two). All of them were strong in the academic areas that were important to him – science and engineering – and all had good reputations. He needed a way to decide, though, and his parents were willing to send him on campus visits, which he says made all the difference. The feedback from Johns Hopkins students was positive, but WashU students in general seemed happier, even “screaming superlatives.” That is what won him over, and so he accepted WashU’s offer of admittance and enrolled in the fall of 2009.

Choosing a major

Adam had no trouble transitioning academically. He felt well prepared and he was interested in his classes. Where he struggled was in taking control of his life and, in particular, managing his time. His best example was his experience with his Spanish class. As a child, he was virtually bilingual and so he expected his WashU Spanish class to be a breeze, but because of a lack of attention – and attendance – he managed to dig a very deep hole for himself. That deep hole, however, was a wake-up call and a turning point. Adam decided he wanted to change course, and over time, he began to see the results of making positive changes and better decisions. Looking back on the person he was then, he suspects he would have benefited from some type of gap year even though he knows that at the time he would never have considered it.

Adam, however, was fortunate to not only take hold of his situation at that time but to take a class that literally changed the course of his life. He entered college with interests in both science and engineering, but, through his coursework, he began to realize that he was more interested in the why of things than in the how of things. In other words, he was more interested in the theoretical aspects of physics than in the applied aspects of engineering. He still liked engineering and he cared about using technology to better the world, but he found that he loved physics. In fact, he loved it so much that he declared himself a physics major and signed up for a research project with one of his favorite professors. The work was valuable and exciting on its own but proved to have an additional benefit in that Adam used his experience as the basis for his honors thesis. His research program was through a WashU summer research initiative, but he says that WashU, like all research universities, has numerous opportunities for students to get involved in research. In Adam’s case, he not only learned more about an area that was fascinating to him, but acquired the research skills that he would later use in his first jobs out of college. The experience also convinced him that he wanted to head toward a research-oriented career.

Adam might have followed the usual pattern of going right to grad school after earning his undergraduate degree, but an unexpected event at the beginning of his senior year changed the timeline of his plans. Although his primary extracurricular activity in college was membership in an a cappella group, he turned out one day to play in a rugby game. It was his first and only experience on the rugby field, and it earned him a serious concussion that sidelined him for several months. When he returned to campus, just completing the work for his degree was challenge enough without adding GRE prep and grad school applications, so he put those aside for a time and instead took first one job (with a law firm) and then a second (with a software developer). His goal at the time was just to get fully back on track, but now he feels that he benefited from both experiences – from what he learned at those jobs and from the opportunity to utilize the skills he had learned in the WashU research lab. Looking back, he regards the interlude of paid employment as a valuable “gap” from his academic journey.

By last year, however, Adam’s focus was clear, and he was ready to apply to grad school. He studied, prepped, applied – and then worked hard to make his dream come true. His goal was to make connections with professors who, through his interactions with them, would decide they wanted to work with him over the five or six years of the program. Adam’s insight was to recognize that professors are making a multi-year investment in the students who are accepted and that they have something at stake too. Adam knew he was competing with scores of other strong applicants and so wanted a way to set himself apart from the pack. He knew too that one of his strengths was an ability to present himself well, so he began an email campaign to try to get himself noticed. He thought that if he knocked enough times on enough doors, he might be able to interest someone in his application. He knew it had the potential of making the difference.

Adam’s hard work and persistence paid off, and in the fall of 2017, he began his graduate program at MIT. He describes his first-year experience at MIT as intense (which he expected) and surprisingly friendly (which he hadn’t expected). It's an example of how different the graduate and undergraduate climates can be.

Adam will be focusing his study and his research on transparent solar panels and will be working as part of a materials science group headed by a physics professor. It’s a perfect set-up for this physics guy who hopes that his work will one day bring benefits to society.

Adam is happy with the course his life is taking, and now that he is acclimated to graduate school life, this dreamer of air, space and sun feels ready to do more tutoring. He is eager to share his love of math and physics with his PM students – and, yes, share his tips on conquering those standardized tests, too.