'Einstein for Beginners' Leads Physics Student to a Path That 'Matters'
Luis Martinez's path to college wasn't a straight line. In fact, higher education wasn't originally a part of his post-high school plans.
"I didn't think about going to college," he said. "I didn't even think that I could."
Fast forward to 2009.
This semester, Martinez started his second year as a doctoralstudent at UC Merced, where he is pursing a Ph.D. in physics. He's also one of two students to receive the university's Faculty Mentor Program Fellowship(FMP) for the 2009-10 school year.
The fellowship helps recipients acquire and develop advanced research skills while working under a faculty member's guidance. The goal is to improve mentoring opportunities between faculty and doctoral students who aren't yet at the dissertation stage but are currently engaged in research. The fellowship covers school expenses for one academic year.
Fellowship selectees conduct research during the fall semester and develop an independent project in the spring. By the program's end, students will have developed enhanced research skills and are expected to produce a research paper worthy of publication in a scholarly journal.
Martinez's mentor is professor Raymond Chaio, an award-winning atomic, molecular and optical physicist with joint appointments in the schools of Engineeringand Natural Sciences. UC Merced recruited Chaio from UC Berkeley, where he taught physics for 38 years.
"We're trying to detect gravitational waves, confirm their existence and eventually measure their physical properties by using superconductors," Martinez said. "Professor Chiao is taking an approach no one else has taken."
Martinez said his transition -- from believing college wasn't in the cards for him to becoming a doctoral candidate who gets to work side-by-side with a renowned physicist -- started back in his hometown of East Los Angeles.
As a kid, Martinez was always interested in learning how things work. He spent time tinkering with cars and small electronics. While a student at Garfield High School, Martinez decided he would get a job after graduation and work.
He did that for about a year before a friend suggested they expand their career options by attending community college. Martinez enrolled at East Los Angeles Community College to study business economics.
At the same time, he started reading scientific articles about light. "I was curious about how light worked, how it bounces off walls and such," he said.
His business major friends noticed that Martinez was becoming more intrigued with science and suggested he explore that interest. He went to the library and checked out "Einstein for Beginners," a book that explained the scientist's theories in layman's terms. Reading that book changed his life.
The next semester, he took an introductory physics course and with that, became hooked on science. He transferred to UC Berkeley as a junior and earned a bachelor's degreein physics. While researching physics graduate programs, he heard about UC Merced and started investigating the school, its program and faculty.
"I liked the idea that UC Merced was a new campus and that I could contribute to," he said. Being a part of an intimate campus community appealed to him, too.
"At Berkeley, you're a little fish in a big pond," he said. "It wasn't a personal experience."
Not so at UC Merced.
"UC Merced has really allowed me to spread my wings," Martinez said. "Here, the people are personable and are willing to help. Working with my professors opened my mind and has given me the confidence I need to become a physicist."
Martinez expects to complete his doctoral degree in about three years. He is still mulling future career possibilities, which include applying for a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or teaching at the university level.