Department SpotlightWhitworth Alumnus Pursues Science, Adventure and Service Across the Globe
Whitworth alumnus Nathan Williams, '06, seeks opportunities to leap into the unknown. His love of leaping was fostered during his three years as a high jumper on the Whitworth Track & Field team. But the math and physics double major not only competed in sporting events at Whitworth; he also bounded from one scientific adventure to another, from doing research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, to studying math and physics during a study-abroad program in Sweden.
This summer Williams will land in Burkina Faso, located in western Africa, where he will live and work for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Williams will teach science to youths who live in remote villages in the heart of one of the poorest nations in the world. He was compelled to apply to the Peace Corps after meeting a student from Cameroon while studying in Sweden in fall 2005.
"I talked with him about the problems in Africa and what he thought were the ways to solve them," Williams says. "I asked him what he thought about Peace Corps and the work the organization did in Africa, and his response was overwhelmingly positive."
Williams joined the Peace Corps because he wants to do something for someone else, he says.
"The Peace Corps gives people unique opportunities to really give themselves to communities in some of the poorest places in the world," Williams says." I will also be able to learn about a different culture, learn a couple of new languages, and gain a different perspective from which to view my own culture."
Williams, who grew up in Longview, Wash., says he wasn't the most studious person in high school. He hadn't planned on becoming a scientist until he took a physics class his senior year that sparked his interest in the field.
"What fascinates me about science is its ability to describe so precisely with mathematics the fundamental structure of the environment in which we live," Williams says. "It's a bit like reading God’s blueprint for the world."
As a Whitworth student, Williams wrote the software that automates the operation of the college's observatory dome. Located atop the Eric Johnston Science Center, the dome houses a web-accessible telescope that is capable of viewing objects in the solar system during daylight hours.
During the summers while Williams was in college, he worked at jobs that helped cushion his bank account - one summer he drove a forklift at a paper mill - and he pursued educational opportunities with some of the heavy weights engaged in science research. At the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center during summer 2004, Williams worked with an international team of scientists that tested and installed a new particle detection system for the BaBar experiment. The BaBar experiment is a big-particle physics experiment that looks for violation of certain symmetry properties of physics, Williams says.
The following summer, at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Williams worked on a theoretical research project analyzing the effects of resonance on adiabatic invariance.
"I'll try to put that in more accessible terms," Williams says. "Adiabatic invariance is a principle that says if an oscillating system is altered slowly, there is a property of the system that remains basically constant for at least a certain period of time."
Williams likens this research to that of studying someone using a swing.
"If you kick your legs at the correct frequency, the kick will resonate with the frequency of the swing and you will swing higher," Williams says. "I was looking to see if the adiabatic invariant is still nearly constant even if you kick at the right frequency and if so, for how long. This is interesting to plasma physicists because they use adiabatic invariance frequently to do things like contain super hot plasmas. You can't just stick them in a container because they will melt it."
On the heels of his summer at Princeton, Williams shifted his studies to an international stage when he relocated to Sweden for a fall 2005 semester-long study-abroad program. In Sweden Williams took math and physics courses and a Swedish- language course. It was a fabulous experience, he enthuses.
"I made friends from all over the world and still keep in touch with many of them," Williams says. "On my floor of the residence hall there were students from Asia, Europe, Africa and North America."
Williams also traveled extensively. During the semester he visited 15 countries, sometimes traveling alone and other times with friends.
"Even when traveling on my own I met a lot of neat people from all over the world who were staying in hostels," Williams says. "I saw the Pope from no more than 10 meters away in Vatican City and in Geneva I saw a festival in which participants reenacted the year 1602."
As Williams describes his travels and learning experiences, one senses that this young man moves through the world with his arms wide open, eager to embrace all that is mind-sharpening, view-widening and heart-stretching.
After the Peace Corps Williams plans to enter a doctoral program in theoretical physics, possibly in cosmology or particle physics. But he knows his work in Burkina Faso could alter the focus of his graduate studies. He's open to the possibility of changing course and earning a master's degree in public policy and international development.
"I would really like to continue working for those in developing countries after I return," Williams says. "We'll see. You never know where you'll end up, but I'm leaning strongly towards physics at the moment."
When Williams makes the move from leaning to leaping, it will be exciting to see where he lands next.