Cole Stewart is a physics and mathematics double major on the graduate school track. A junior from Tuscaloosa, AL, he plans to pursue a PhD in physics after graduation.
How did you choose your major?
I chose to major in physics due to my interest in research, which arises from my desire to ambitiously try to answer the huge, overarching questions in our universe (although realistically to just get a better grasp of them), such as the composition of our universe and its origin, as well as the subatomic structure and its nuances.
Additionally, the reasoning behind my choice of minor is parallel: I’m also interested in the overarching questions and ideas surrounding the human experience, which the Blount Scholars Program is adept to delve into. Some of those discourses are the search for absolutes, whether human nature exists, and the origins of different societal and cultural values. I’m quite interested in all of these broad concepts, and my interest for them probably stemmed from my favorite books, The Da Vinci Code series by Dan Brown.
What do you like about studying physics at UA?
The community, enveloping both students and professors, is fairly tight-knit, with bonds that can help you academically and otherwise. The physics major is already fairly small, but there are also a few undergraduate clubs, such as the Society of Physics Students, that help tighten the acquaintances you made in your classes into friendships. Most of the professors make themselves available outside the classroom and are interested in your development beyond just your grade in their class.
What are your career goals?
After graduation, I plan on going to graduate school to pursue a PhD in physics. That has always been the plan since I stepped on campus as I determined that would be the most beneficial to my journey as a researcher. As an underclassman, I figured that I would end up a professor somewhere somewhat by default to do my research, but over time I realized that I would quite enjoy the teaching aspect of it.
Talk about any career-related experiences you’ve had. How did you find these opportunities?
As research was my ultimate end goal, I was determined to get involved in undergraduate research. I emailed the head of the department, Dr. Leclair, before my first semester freshman year about any open positions for research in the department. Luckily, one professor, the current Undergraduate Director, Dr. Hauser, had one and reached out, so I got involved in research in late June before enrolling — one of the advantages of going to college in your hometown. I started training under an upperclassman before changing projects being trained by a graduate student. There I learned several project and physics specific takeaways, but the most helpful was just the impression of life as a researcher; it definitely helped my anxiety about the future through getting a taste of it early.
After about a year though, I realized that that specialty of physics was just not for me and took a semester off before getting plugged into a different project under Dr. Piepke. Unfortunately, I was only able to do research for him for a few months before COVID hit.
On top of my taste of life as a researcher, I also realized how understanding some of the professors are; they were completely considerate in regard to them knowing that you might realize that this is just not the type of physics that you’re passionate about and will help you get connected with another professor with your desired specialty.
What surprised you most about college?
Honestly, what surprised me the most was how small it felt and currently feels. Coming in as a freshman, I was a bit anxious about the fact that there are ~38,000 students enrolled, but I didn’t find it to be a problem at all. Now, that’s definitely aided by the fact that I’m in a small major, and even more so by Blount and it being an LLC, but even in my freshman-level classes with two to three hundred students, I almost always had at least one friend in the class, but usually several. As an upperclassman, that has always been the case.
How did you make friends and find community on campus?
Put simply, get involved. Join a club or a group beyond just being a member. In life as a whole, but even more so college, you get out what you put in. Join a club, whether academic, athletic, or social, and you’ll find people with similar interests. For me, the most beneficial membership I have is being a member of the Blount Scholars Program. Taking the same classes and living in the same dorm as a freshman, you get exposed to a much larger possible friend group much quicker than usual.
Additionally, I became quite heavily involved in the Society of Physics Students. Currently, I hold a position in both of them: BSP as a student ambassador and SPS as its president.
What advice would you give to incoming students?
I pretty much gave my spiel in the preceding response, or at least hinted at it, but to drive it home: get involved! Put yourself out there and you’ll greatly benefit from it.
I suggest one club that’s more specific to your academic and career interest, and one with a bit more of a social stance. Choose two or three that you can see yourself getting truly and deeply involved in, and then do just that. You’ll find people with more similar interests that will forge friendships that are more likely to sustain all the bumps in the road of life.