Childhood

I was born on Sunday, February 1st, 1981 in Waynesboro, Virginia. Waynesboro is a small city at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the central Shenandoah Valley. If you’ve ever heard John Denver’s song Country Roads, you’ll recognize that this is the area that the song references (The Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River are in western Virginia). To get an idea of the situation into which I was born, it would be best to first read the page summarizing my family. I’ll focus this autobiographical sketch mainly on my intellectual development. Thus, the only “personal” matters that I will mention are those which had a significant impact on my intellectual and professional growth. The article is written in the spirit of a simple.wikipedia.org article in order to maximize the clarity for a large audience, but I didn’t take this to the extreme.

At the time of my birth, my father’s health was rapidly declining. We were a low-income family; our primary source of income was my father’s veteran benefits. We did, however, own a fairly large (18.75 acre) plot of land in addition to the land upon which we were living. The large plot was located about a mile outside of the town of Grottoes, VA—less than a mile from the Augusta County-Rockingham County line, Grand Caverns, and the Shenandoah National Park boundary. My father, having sensed that he was going to die soon, made arrangements so that the family would have a nicer place to live. When I was only a few months old, we moved to the large plot of land, that I would come to know simply as “home.”

In contrast with my next-closest sibling, I developed more quickly than average. I was “cruising” at 7 months. I began walking without holding onto furniture at 9 months, and I was able to construct simple complete sentences at 10 months. During my first few years, I learned a great deal from watching documentaries and movies on television, playing with puzzles and logic games, taking things apart, and observing nature. I didn’t have any direct exposure to highly educated people and I was never coerced into learning new things. I didn’t go to pre-school or participate in any programs that would give me a “head start.” Whenever I learned something new, it was because I wanted to learn. In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), when I began kindergarten, I was considered academically “above average.” I recall taking some sort of standardized aptitude test in my Kindergarten class. I scored in the 99th percentile in several categories. Evidently, telling a child that they scored highly on a sort of “IQ” test was discouraged; I only found out about my test score years after finishing college.

Elementary school was mostly boring and I very much disliked being forced to attend, but I did learn a lot of things that I couldn’t learn at home, so it seemed worthwhile in some ways. My least favorite part of the day was the bus ride to and from school; There were several older kids on the bus who enjoyed picking on me. I also dreaded “reading class” because I absolutely hated being forced to read “fiction” and I didn’t like being called on to read aloud (I was very introverted). Later in life, I discovered that I didn’t like the sort of “literature” that I was expected to read in elementary school because the subject matter was too childish for me. I had high marks in first and second grade, with the exception of a brief period during first grade while I was recovering from pneumonia. I won my first academic competition in second grade: the class spelling bee.

During the summers of my childhood, I climbed trees in the wooded area on the far south-west side of my back yard. I explored the woods on the neighbor’s property as well. My neighbor, Paul and I built a little tree fort out of logs and old honeysuckle vines. It was great fun! My mother didn’t want me to hang around with Paul though; he was a few years older than me and he was “weird.” He had been in trouble for stealing things on many occasions and his parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think she was afraid that he was going to “witness” to me. I got in trouble for talking to him. Paul introduced me to the art of bonsai when I was in 4th grade. He had seen bonsai in the movie The Karate Kid or one of its sequels and he tried learning, but it seemed that he wasn’t very successful. I learned a lot from a bonsai book that he sold to me as well as from trial and error. One day, while I was near the top of a pine tree that Paul and I called the “look-out tree”, a bird landed within a meter of my hand and it started calling. I was fascinated! I had never seen a wild bird so closely before. I looked through reference books and I soon figured out that the bird was a mourning dove. That experience led me to the discovery of Audubon field guides. The field guids were packed full of cool information about birds, snakes, insects, wildflowers, trees, weather, the night sky, and much more. I was hooked instantly.

In terms of science education, elementary school was insulting. I learned much more during the summer than the teachers ever taught us in class. At home I could use my chemistry set and my microscope, read my Audubon field guides, and watch documentaries on television. The learning environment at school was very limited in comparison. I also had access to my neighbor’s machine shop which contained all kinds of fascinating equipment—including two microscopes which were much more powerful than my own microscope or anything that the school had. In 4th grade, a standardized test result placed my science knowledge at the level expected of someone who was finishing 8th grade. This illustrated to me how pathetic early childhood science education was in the United States. In addition to my science “talent”, I began drawing and painting rather well in 4th grade. I was subsequently placed into the “talented and gifted” (TAG) program for both art and science.

Middle school (junior high school) wasn’t much better than elementary school in terms of the quality of education that I was offered. My least favorite part of middle school was P.E. (physical education) class because I hated being forced to play sports. I enjoyed doing the exercises and the physical fitness tests in P.E., but when I was expected to play sports, I often faked being sick. When I was essentially forced to play, I refused to put effort into it. I would not lower myself to the level of the people who found amusement with “retarded” sports. At the time, I had a low opinion of most of the people who enjoyed team sports.

During the summer between 6th and 7th grades, I created my first fish pond (water garden) using a Rubbermade cattle watering troff. I sketched a design, dug the hole for the pond, and then my mother and a family friend named Milton Bolton transported the necessary materials (mostly gravel and large stones). We finished constructing the pond in a few days. Soon afterward, I had aspirations of making a larger, more natural-looking pond. The next summer, I began the construction of a large garden at the edge of the woods. The plan was to have a garden with a much larger pond, lined with with Firestone pond liner. The first summer of the project was mostly spent clearing brush, pruning trees, and removing honeysuckle vines. I was able to finish making a little greenhouse / hotbed for propagating plants from cuttings and sheltering my bonsai during the winter. I also built a potato cannon that summer.

During my 8th grade year, Milton died of cancer. Milton had been like a grandfather to me. He knew a lot about landscaping, carpentry, woodworking, masonry, farming, and mechanical devices; he was also a pretty good chef. I learned many things from him in the few years that I knew him. The same year that Milton died, Paul decided to kill my dog (his motivation for this is still unknown to me). Paul placed my dog’s corpse under my mother’s bedroom window. During the subsequent years, he vandalized my garden, set a fire in the woods (which I was, fortunately, able to extinguish), and he shot a pellet gun at our house on multiple occasions. Once, when I was outside, I heard a pellet whiz by my head. Paul was eventually arrested for putting a fake bomb in the local post office. When he was released from prison, he continued terrorizing the neighborhood and the surrounding area. He set fire to a neighbor’s house. He was arrested again and I believe he’s still in prison (as of 2009) for attempted manslaughter and arson. He also attempted to blow up a local gas station. I’m not sure exactly what crime he is serving time for at this point.

The quality of my formal education improved significantly once I finally reached high school. The teachers were more respectful toward the students and they seemed more knowledgeable in general. Ninth grade was a major turning point for me:  I used the Would Wide Web for the first time and I became aware of the wonderful field of physics. My friends and I spent our free time in the library—the only room in the school with Internet access—using an Intel 80486 machine running Windows 3.1. We used the Netscape Navigator web browser to explore the wonders of the Web. The hardware, software, and the ISDN connection were slow, but the possibilities were amazing. Within a year or so, the entire school was renovated and most of the classrooms had Internet access. In my 9th grade English class, we began each class session with a few minutes of silent reading. One of the first books that I read during that class was A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s book changed my life. I became very interested in the concepts described in the book and I wanted to find out more…suddenly I came up with the crazy idea of becoming a theoretical astrophysicist. The only other book I remember reading that year was a biography of Gandhi.

Between 9th and 10th grades, I continued working on my large garden. I began digging the hole for my fish pond and working out the details of the overall design of the garden. I continued learning about water gardening from the experience of taking care of my existing pond. I also built a pair of stilts that summer. I was able to take a few steps on the stilts on my first try and I was walking pretty well after a day or two of practice.

I finished designing my garden and digging the hole for the pond, so it was time to install the pond liner. Everything went smoothly and I soon had plants, koi, and goldfish in the pond. The garden was the culmination of several years of work and learning. The process was actually very much like doing research. As I was finishing my pond, one of my neighbors saw it and decided that they wanted one in their yard as well. I advised them and helped a bit with the construction process. As time went on, I eventually designed and installed a second pond and a small marsh area in my garden.

In 11th grade, I began studying chemistry and physics formally for the first time. I had high marks in my chemistry class, but it was only marginally interesting to me compared with physics. The same year, I also began taking Spanish classes. I had A’s and A+’s for the remainder of high school and I often had the highest overall grade of all of the students in my classes. Being the top student in my classes didn’t require much effort, which made sense because I didn’t take any “advanced placement” classes in high school. In my physics class, my average was 115% at one point because I never had any points deducted and I answered all of the extra-credit problems correctly.

At the beginning of 12th grade, I started the process of choosing a college major. At first I was unsure which of my passions I should follow—landscape architecture or physics. I decided on physics because it seemed to lead to more possibilities and it was more challenging and prestigious. Later that year, I read The History of Physics by Isaac Asimov, Relativity by Einstein, and some papers about gravitation and Riemannian geometry. I gained a conceptual understanding of certain aspects of general relativity, but I didn’t understand the Riemannian geometry material because I lacked the background knowledge. After all, the highest-level math course I had taken at the time was pre-calculus. I soon began wondering whether inertia and gravitation were caused by quantum vacuum fluctuations. I considered the possibility that even the concepts of space and time were intrinsically related to the quantum vacuum fluctuations. I came up with a mental picture of how inertia and gravitation might work and I thought that my idea might even be used to detect gravitational waves using a cleverly designed instrument similar to a Casimir force apparatus.

I didn’t apply for any college scholarships even though my mom didn’t have the money to pay for tuition. I knew that my father’s veteran benefits would pay for my tuition as long as I went to a public university in Virginia. The benefit package paid for tuition and gave me an “allowance” to buy a few hundred dollars worth of textbooks each semester, but it didn’t pay for housing, so I applied to the one decent school to which I could realistically commute.

College (1999-2003)

James Madison University (JMU) is located in Harrisonburg, VA. The campus is only a 17 mile drive from my childhood home. Because of my financial situation and the close proximity of the school, JMU was the only college to which I bothered applying. I took a scholarship test at the physics department, but I didn’t win the scholarship. Fortunately, I was accepted to the school. Later, I discovered that JMU’s physics department was among the best undergraduate physics departments in the state of Virginia.

During my senior year, I started dating Tazzie Howard. She was a geology major who was two years younger than me. Dating her motivated me to focus more intently on school (because she was very focused on school and grades). My grades improved as a result. I worked on a simple “research” project with the chair of the physics department, C. Steven Whisnant . The “research” mainly involved applying the things I had learned about computer hardware and software. Dr. Whisnant’s office and lab were on opposite sides of the campus, so I basically set things up so that he could monitor his experiments remotely using LabView and the school network. I also took two very important classes during my last year of college: Astrophysics and The History of Science. The two classes were taught by my favorite professor: William H. Ingham. Astrophysics combined material from all of the previous physics classes I had taken. It was a very interesting course, and it served as a comprehensive review of physics. I became interested in galactic simulations and the possibility of using simulations to study the nature of the mysterious “dark matter.” Then I wondered if modified versions of gravity could resolve the dark matter problem. Perhaps galaxy simulations could be used to test theories of gravitation. In the the History of Science course, I learned more history than what was presented in the Asimov book that I had read four years earlier. I gained more insight into how science progresses and I learned some interesting historical details as well.

The Break (2003-2005)

I did not apply to graduate school immediately after college. I wanted a break from school and I wanted to spend time with Tazzie. She had two more years of school remaining; if I went to graduate school, we would be far apart. I began looking for jobs in the Harrisonburg area (near JMU), but that was futile. There were practically no entry-level jobs that I wasn’t over-qualified for because of my physics degree or under-qualified for because I didn’t have a master’s degree or PhD.

I ended up taking a part-time position at Century 21 TRI Timeshares. Initially the job just involved painting, but then I started fixing things in the office building and doing a lot of random tasks. I worked on finishing a basement in one of the office buildings, I installed ceiling tiles (i.e. I “hung” a ceiling), I fixed leaky pipes in one office building and leaks in the roof of another. I was in charge of upgrading the software on the computers and teaching the sales agents how to use new software. I also did some database “scrubbing”—checking the validity of old entries. During this period I was also continuing my search for full-time employment and I began investing in the stock market. At one point, my income from trading stocks was larger than the amount that I was paid at the part-time job.

As the timeshare resale market continued to stagnate and the company lost money in a legal battle with Century 21, many people were laid off and many others preemptively resigned. Eventually the custodial staff was laid off and custodial services were added to my list of duties. I had to show up extra early in the morning to vacuum the offices and clean the bathrooms before the sales agents arrived. When the company closed an office in Winchester, VA, I had to rent a U-Haul, help pack all of the furniture and computers from the office, and put the items into storage. Witnessing a company disintegrate was a depressing and fascinating at the same time. The timeshare component of the company eventually imploded and I was laid off. All that survived was a small marketing company.

I received a small inheritance from my grandfather’s estate at about the same time I was laid off.  I invested a large portion of the inheritance in AMD about a week before they announced their earnings. I was confident that the earnings report would show that the stock was undervalued and the price would rise subsequently. My prediction came true and I sold all of my shares shortly afterward. I “earned” a few thousand dollars from that little gamble. My bank account had grown substantially from the part-time job, the inheritance, and the stock trading. I was driving an unreliable 1987 Ford Escort at the time, so I decided to use part of my savings to buy a better car. I bought a used Toyota Avalon XLS for less than what I had earned in the stock market.

While all of this was happening, I was spending most of my free time with Tazzie. I practically lived in her townhouse. I shared my passion for physics and astrophysics with her. She became a physics minor and an astronomy minor. I tutored her and a few of her classmates in physics and calculus. From that experience, I discovered that I was pretty good at explaining things. I discovered that it was fun to find alternative ways of explaining things. Tutoring was a great way for me to review for graduate school. To prepare further, I bought some books on classical electricity and magnetism, complex analysis, tensor calculus, differential geometry, and Fourier analysis because I knew that I would need to know more about these topics for graduate school.

When Tazzie started her senior research project, she was initially going to work with the geophysicist in the geology department so she could combine physics and geology, but he died of cancer quite suddenly before she could start working on a project. She found another professor to serve as her advisor, but he was unfamiliar with physics. His function was essentially to sign paperwork. I worked on the project with her—basically serving as her advisor. The project was a simple computational magnetosphere model in which we balanced the pressure between solar wind and the geomagnetic field on the sunward (day) side of the magnetosphere in an attempt to compute the position and shape of the bow shock. It wasn’t a useful project in terms of its output, but it was a valuable learning experience for both of us.

In addition to gaining teaching experience, studying physics in more detail, and learning to use the stock market to my advantage, I also became a harder worker during this two-year “break” period. I forced myself to carefully work through boring, mundane details of derivations and application problems. This practice improved the speed with which I could perform mundane mathematical computations. I had previously been too lazy to write every step in solving a problem if the expressions were more than a few lines long. My wisdom teeth were also removed during this period. The wisdom teeth had been making me ill for a few years before they were removed. After the teeth were removed, I didn’t get sick nearly as often and I was able to concentrate for much longer periods of time.

Tazzie and I applied to graduate schools during the fall of 2004. We had been dating for over two years and we had known one another for three years, so I thought we would be able to handle a little distance. Tazzie accepted an offer from The Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and I accepted my only offer, which was from George Mason University (GMU). The drive from GMU to PSU was reasonable, which meant that we could see one another from time to time. Also, GMU was just a few miles from Tazzie’s home, so whenever she was home, we would automatically be close. It seemed like a decent plan to me.

Northern VA – Master of Science (2005-2008)

George Mason University is located in northern Virginia, near Washington DC. Their graduate programs are designed so that government employees and other local professionals can work during the day and pursue graduate degrees in the evening. The university is located in what was then the wealthiest county in the United States—Fairfax County, VA. I wanted to have a reasonable income while I worked on my master’s degree, so being a teaching assistant at the university was not an option. I applied for jobs as a high school teacher. I wanted to teach either math or physics, but I soon learned that I was considered “unqualified” to teach math because I had not taken an “abstract algebra” course. Once I learned about this strange requirement, I focused on finding a physics teaching position. About two weeks before the first day of school, I was hired at Oakton High School in Vienna, VA. Conveniently, Oakton was a short drive from GMU. The starting pay was $40,000, which was much more than what I would be paid as a teaching assistant at GMU. Virginia law required unlicensed teachers to show that they were working toward licensure. Teachers were required to complete the licensure program within three years of being hired. My plan was to work toward licensure and complete my master’s degree in physics in three years rather than the usual two. Since I would be working a demanding full-time job and taking courses in GMU’s School of Education and Human Development in addition to my physics courses, three years seemed like a more reasonable target than two years. I planned to stop teaching and begin a PhD program at another university after completing the MS. However few things seem to turn out exactly as planned, which is fortunate in this case. In August of 2005, I started teaching high school and taking graduate physics classes. I had to overcome a few artificial obstacles because I was an unlicensed new teacher. One weekend, as I was finishing the process of jumping through bureaucratic hoops, I drove to PSU to visit Tazzie. It had been two weeks since we saw one another. During that visit, Tazzie ended our relationship. She had met someone in her department at PSU. The next few months were difficult. I lived in a ghetto apartment in Fairfax because it was the only one I could rent in the area before I had a job offer. I had to be at work by 7:00 AM each morning, teach, go to meetings, and then attend my graduate classes at night. I somehow found time to do my own homework, create instructional materials and lesson plans for the classes that I was teaching, and grade my students’ quizzes, tests, labs, and homework. Finding time to sleep was difficult. To complicate matters, I was teaching other classes in addition to physics. In order to make my position full-time during my first year, I had to teach a remediation class called “Developing Literacies” and a special chemistry class. I had to do all of this without the emotional support of the person who had been my best friend! Somehow I managed to make it through that first year without flunking out of graduate school. I actually performed quite well in computational physics during the spring semester. It could even be said that I excelled in that particular class. During the summer of 2006, I began studying tensor calculus and differential geometry in detail. I spent a few hours each day working on it. By the end of the summer, I was a different person in terms of my understanding of mathematics. My level of mathematical literacy and my ability to mentally manipulate expressions improved immensely. I also read several books written by Richard Feynman and Roger Penrose during the summer break. During the same period, I discovered the wonders of fasting and I started consuming fish oil and supplements like alpha GPC (a source of choline) and acetyl l-carnitine. I was suddenly able to concentrate more intensely and think more clearly than ever before. Noah Early, one of my friends since elementary school, bought a house in Arlington, VA during the summer of 2006. I moved out of my Fairfax apartment and into his basement. Noah’s house was a huge improvement over the ghetto apartment where I had been living. Arlington was a much nicer area than the City of Fairfax as well. The basement was quiet and dark at night—perfect for sleeping. The rent was slightly cheaper than my old apartment and I had some company, so moving to Noah’s house was very beneficial. At work, I was given a new, larger classroom and I was teaching only physics instead of three completely separate classes. To top it off, I was now being paid about$46k per year rather than \$40k because it was my second year on the job and I had completed enough graduate credits to move to a higher pay bracket. My PayPal money market account interest rate was also high and my stocks were gaining in value. Financially, professionally, and personally, 2006-2007 seemed like it would be like a much better year than 2005-2006, and it was.

During my second year at GMU, I enrolled in classical electrodynamics 1 & 2, a stellar atmospheres class, and an introduction to general relativity & cosmology. My tensor calculus and differential geometry knowledge paid off during the electrodynamics and the relativity courses. In the fall, one of my professors suggested that I stop teaching high school and get a research assistantship the following year. I had already learned everything I wanted to learn about teaching in the public high schools, so I followed his advice.

I spoke with Robert Weigel (Bob) in the Space Weather Wesearch Group about becoming a research assistant. During my Christmas break, I began reading a book that Bob recommended. This was my first in-depth introduction to magnetospheric substorms and convection. It marked the beginning of my formal research career.

My research assistantship technically began in May, but I didn’t finish teaching until June, so I was briefly being paid for two full-time jobs. I spent most of the summer reading An Introduction to Space Physics, some plasma physics books, and journal articles. I also wrote a few simple codes in Matlab. While I was making the transition into research, I was also getting to know Angela Lee, one of Noah’s co-workers. Noah introduced us and we quickly became interested in one another. Noah offered to rent one of the upstairs bedrooms to Angela and she accepted. Angela and I began dating. Things went well until Noah made us aware that he was interested Angela. At that point, the living situation became very awkward and stressful because he was our landlord and Angela and Noah were co-workers. It was a mess! I had already begun the process of applying to PhD programs and Angela was making plans to move to Los Angeles. She encouraged me to apply to CA schools so we could continue to be close. In the mean time, at GMU I had become a full-time student and part-time research assistant.

My main courses during the fall semester were quantum mechanics and computational fluid dynamics (CFD). Graduate level quantum mechanics was surprisingly easy after completing all of the other core physics courses. CFD was the most challenging course I had ever taken—and one of the most rewarding. It played an essential role in my subsequent research project. In November of 2007, I stopped using Microsoft Windows and switched all of my computers to Ubuntu 7.10. I had Suse Linux installed in a partition on my computers for years and I had tried earlier versions of Ubuntu, but the lack of hardware support forced me to use Windows until Ubuntu 7.10 was released. Once I began using GNU/Linux full-time, I quickly learned the Unix shell commands, shell scripting, the finer details of GNU, and the many incredibly powerful features and free applications that are available with the GNU/Linux platform. At Bob’s request, I made my office workstation into a web server. I installed a wiki and I learned basic $$\LaTeX$$ syntax so I could document my research and easily share it with him.
Sir Roger Penrose gave a lecture at GMU in the fall. The lecture was part of the Aharonov Distinguished Lecture Series, named after Yakir Aharonov, a rather famous physicist at GMU. This was the first time I had met one of my physics “heroes”, so it was a nice experience. I recorded a video of the lecture and posted it on YouTube, here. Unfortunately the audio quality and volume is low because of the poor sound system in the room and the camera is shaky because I didn’t have a tripod with me.

During the spring semester of 2008, I took the second (and final) semester of quantum mechanics. As a project for the class, I had to learn the essentials of Feynman’s path integral formulation and present a lecture on it. This was a highly valuable exercise. The class ended with a brief introduction to second quantization. I spent the bulk of my time working on my research. I attended CFD lectures, but I didn’t enroll in the second semester of the class because I needed to focus on my research project. I applied to PhD programs in gravitation and astrophysics at ten schools in six states. Three of the schools were in CA. Angela moved to Los Angeles in February. I was accepted to the University of Utah and the University of California, Riverside (UCR). I felt that the University of California was more prestigious and would provide me with more resources. Riverside is also warmer than Salt Lake City, and it’s much closer to LA, so I accepted the offer from UCR. I finished my master’s degree in May and moved back home to conserve money and recover from a horrible illness triggered by an allergic reaction to mold and soot.  By the time I flew to CA to rent an apartment, Angela had effectively ended the relationship.

Southern CA – PhD – Marriage (2008 – present)

I flew to CA and signed a rental agreement for an apartment within walking distance of the physics department. In late August, I packed most of my belongings into an ABF truck and had them shipped to CA. Then I drove my car across the US. Driving across the continent was an awesome experience. I highly recommend it! A few weeks later, my sister flew to CA to help me set up my apartment. At the time, she had a significant income, so she bought some things for me. Unfortunately, the same week she was at my apartment, her employer, AIG, began making national headlines due to their significant financial problems. The nation finally realized that much of the existing economy was really a sham. The economic downturn that began in 2007 suddenly turned into a nose-dive.

The first three quarters of classes at UCR were ridiculous. The professors attempted to pack four semesters worth of material into one academic year. The material wasn’t covered in much depth because there was so little time to focus on each topic. Fortunately, I already had a strong background in most of the material being covered, so I managed to get nearly straight A’s in the physics classes. I only had one A-. I also did rather well in the astronomy classes.

In late March of 2009, I met Tana Davidson online and then we met in person and went on a hike in early April. I became very excited about her, but, in my excitement, I did some stupid things which scared her away. We continued talking online and I spent the next few months trying to redeem myself and trying to impress her.

The comprehensive examination for the PhD was scheduled to take place two weeks after the end of the spring quarter (of 2009). I spent the first week after the end of the quarter relaxing. I began working on a balcony garden. I bought some Irish moss and I made a bonsai from a tree that I bought at the local nursery. I also began overhauling Idius Land! at about the same time. I spent most of the second week practicing for the comprehensive exam and trying to adjust my sleep schedule because the exam was early in the morning. I had grown accustomed to waking up around noon. I was reasonably successful in preparing for the exam, but I became sick due to lack of sleep while changing my sleep schedule. I felt miserable during the exam days due to lack of sleep and sinusitis. After the exam, I realized that I made many stupid errors on the exam. I was sure that I couldn’t have possibly passed at the PhD level. A few days later I found out that I had indeed passed! I was one of only two domestic students who passed the exam. I immediately began preparing to do research in galactic dynamics. I read the standard book on the subject, then I read many journal articles and annual reviews. I wrote some small programs in C++ and I read a C++ book so I would be aware of the full capabilities of the language. I rapidly learned most of the essential pieces needed in order to begin research.

I progressed very quickly in terms of my physical fitness as well. In the course of hiking with Tana, I realized that I was in horrible physical condition. That prompted me to I begin an exercise routine after I recovered from the sinusitis. I exercised every other day. Things were going well in general. It even seemed like I might be making some progress with Tana. Then, on September 9th, I read a horrible message posted on Tana’s Facebook wall. Tana had committed suicide. I was unable to eat or even leave my apartment at first after learning of her suicide. The next few weeks were mainly spent dealing with her death. Many of the people close to me have died, but this was different on many levels.

In early October, I drove to Mt. Hamilton to attend an astronomy workshop at the Lick Observatory. The trip helped me deal with Tana’s death. After the trip to Mt. Hamilton, I slowly started doing research again. I began writing grant proposals in order to obtain funding for research so that I would no longer have to be a teaching assistant.  I also began searching for companionship by browsing several dating websites—including a free site that a friend recommended.  The site was called “Plenty of Fish” and it would eventually change my life. In January of 2010, I met Melissa Christian on Plenty of Fish.  We arranged a first date shortly afterward in order to meet in person. Within a few months, we were engaged.  We set our wedding date for August 21st, 2011.

During the winter and early spring of 2010, I began working on a project that eventually became the topic of my PhD qualifying exam as well as the topic of my first journal article.  I wrote a prototype code in the GNU Octave (MATLAB) programming language and then implemented the algorithms in C++. Most of the coding was finished by the late spring of that year. At the end of the spring quarter, I was chosen was the “best second-year graduate student” in the Physics Department based on my research up to that point. Melissa and I lived in Santa Cruz for three weeks during the summer, while I attended the inaugural UC-HIPACC Summer School.  The topic of the summer school was galaxy simulation.  At the summer school, I met many of the authors of the papers I had studied the previous year and I learned about an interesting new development in one of the codes, called Sunrise.  I modified my PhD thesis project and my subsequent grant proposals to incorporate the new development.

In the autumn of 2010 I formed a PhD qualifying exam committee, and scheduled an exam date. In late November, I presented the results of my qualifier project and described my proposed PhD thesis project.  I passed the exam and became a PhD candidate a few days later when I completed my last required coursework. During the winter quarter of 2011, I built a computer with a server motherboard, 24 processor cores, 64GB of system memory, and a graphics accelerator with 512 stream processors (for running code written in nVidia’s CUDA programming language).  My decade of experience building computers had actually come in handy in my PhD research.  The computer, which I named “Crunch”, will be vital for running the Sunrise code.

In the late spring of 2011, Melissa was hired at the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa—the nicest hotel and spa in the Inland Empire area of California. A few days later, my proposal-writing efforts finally paid off. After submitting about eight different versions of my proposal to various government agencies, I learned that one of the proposals had been accepted!  On the same day, I found out that I had been chosen to be an instructor for an introductory physics course during the summer session.  I was the first physics graduate student at UC Riverside to be permitted to teach a class.

Shortly after I finished teaching the summer session class, Melissa and I flew to Virginia and got married at JMU.  We had a short honeymoon in Cancún México.  A few days after returning from Cancún, I had finished the first draft of my paper.  The paper was submitted to The Astrophysical Journal on September 27th, 2011.  After being reviewed and resubmitted, it was accepted for publication on December 16, 2011 and published on February 13, 2012.  While the paper was being reviewed, I began the next stage of my thesis work. In October, I began tutoring again. In January, Melissa and I moved into a more affordable apartment in Downtown Riverside. I also read a few books and I started the long process of reviewing the fundamentals of theoretical physics. Once my review is finished, I plan to study another sub-field in detail.  My goal is to become an expert in a field other than astrophysics (while I still have time to concentrate on learning) so that I can have a better chance of contributing something useful to science in the future.

During the latter half of February of 2012 (after my first paper was published), three notable researchers contacted me and Gaby by e-mail and complimented us on the paper. A computer science student who was in my summer session course contacted me about undergraduate research opportunities after seeing a link to the paper on Facebook. He immediately began collaborating with me on a small part of my thesis project. I was asked to teach again during the summer session of 2012 because my reviews were apparently positive during the 2011 session. Unfortunately, I had to decline the offer in order to focus on research.  A few days later, I was offered a job at the UCR Extension Center as an instructor for a week-long summer school for elementary and middle school science teachers. I accepted this offer since it was not be nearly as time-consuming as teaching a university course. I was also interviewed for the first time by a science journalist before the end of the month.

In late March of 2012, Melissa and I went to Virginia for Spring break. While we were in Virginia, Melissa began having abdominal pain. I drove her to the Urgent Care clinic in Weyer’s Cave. The doctor referred her to the emergency room at RMH. After a CT scan was performed, we discovered that Melissa had several large uterine fibroid tumors. During the next few months, Melissa consulted with surgeons who remove fibroid tumors. They recommended that we should start trying to have children because surgically removing the fibroids would possibly leave Melissa unable to have children. In November of 2012, We conceived Lev Sebastian Stickley. Melissa’s fibroids grew rapidly during the first few months of the pregnancy. As Lev grew, he competed with the fibroids for the blood supply. Fortunately, Lev won the competition! The fibroids began degenerating; the process of degeneration left Melissa in agony and unable to walk at times.

On August 7th, 2013, Lev was born in a birthing suite at South Coast Midwifery in Irvine, Caliornia. Melissa gave birth without any pain medications or major medical prodecures, so we were able to take Lev home a few hours after he was born. The next few weeks were totally dedicated to taking care of Lev as he rapidly developed.

I had planned to complete my Ph.D. in August or September of 2013, but taking care of Melissa, preparing for Lev’s arrival, taking care of Lev, and applying for jobs consumed most of my time during the summer. The final weeks of my dissertation research were quite rough. I worked 12–16 hours per day almost every day for more than two weeks and I survived on minimal sleep. It was a very stessful, unhealthy period of my life. I ended up defending my dissertation on December 6th. The final paperwork was complete on December 12th and the degree was conferred on December 13th.

Dr. Stickley (2014 – present)

I am still applying for jobs, primarily in software engineering, but also systems engineering, and physics research.

Nathaniel Roland Stickley
January 12, 2014