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Grad Student Aims to Shape Understanding of Universe

Grad Student Aims to Shape Understanding of Universe

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the first graduate student earning a degree at UT Austin and our new Discovery Fellows campaign, we're launching a series of posts to introduce you to current graduate students from across the College of Natural Sciences.

First up is Brandon DiNunno, a physics Ph.D. student working toward degree completion in May. Here he lets us know how he hopes to change the world through his research.

What sparked your interest in grad school?

I have always had a deep and profound desire to understand the Universe at a most basic, fundamental level. After a few semesters of undergraduate physics, I realized I would need several years of concentration and guidance from some of the best luminaries to begin to understand the basic guiding principles of Physics. The grad school program in the College of Natural Sciences at UT, to me, was an obvious next step.

I remember when I was an undergraduate at UT, I decided rather spontaneously to sit in on Prof. Dicus's graduate quantum mechanics class. He was working through some detailed calculation (double well potential), and I was trying very hard to keep up. The mathematical machinery was somewhat new to me, and the problem itself seemed like an abstract toy model meant to show us how the machinery worked. When the calculation was done, Prof. Dicus connected the results directly to light emitted from Ammonia molecules… I couldn't believe it. I tried to tell my friends about it, but they never seemed to share my enthusiasm.

What's your favorite part of being a grad student?

Having the freedom to pursue my intellectual goals with undivided attention. Additionally, grad school has forced me to mature and grow in ways I don't think would have been possible if I would have chosen another path. I've gained an irreplaceable confidence knowing I've made it this far in my Ph.D. program. It's rewarding and challenging!

Where's your go-to spot on campus to study, get away from the lab?

I really like going to the Fine Arts Library. They have wall-to-wall windows, a great view, and a piano hanging upside down from the ceiling. The atmosphere is conducive to creative thinking, which is absolutely necessary for a theoretical physicist in training.

Do you have any faculty mentors/inspirations at UT?

Prof. Cecile DeWittt-Morette inspires me. She became a physicist at a time when women were often overlooked in the sciences. Despite the many obstacles thrown her way, she continues to make lasting contributions to the field and culture of physics. In addition to a prolific career in science, she gives so much back to the community through her organization (PLAN of Central Texas), speaking to kids at school assemblies, and tutoring inmates in physics. Her path has helped me continue on mine.

We believe in what you're doing and want to know what you think: How will your research change the world?

It's hard to say. A physicist may never know the true impact of their research in their lifetime. Faraday couldn't have known how his investigations into the relationship between electricity and magnetism could have ushered us into the electrical age. The pioneers of quantum mechanics had no way of knowing that, after 90 years, their research would be the basis for 30% of the U.S. GDP today. While I hope to do great things with my research, it's tough to gauge the impact of my work today.

What do you hope to accomplish after grad school?

I hope to have an impact on our understanding of the universe. I also hope to one day be in a position to impact legislation. Every scientist should fight to inject rationality into national debate, in a nonpartisan way.

Click here to learn more about our graduate students and to find out how you can support the Discovery Fellows graduate student fundraising effort.

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Comments 1

Guest - alex on Thursday, 08 October 2015 19:34

A true dedicated person in UT physics since 2004...it was an honor to take undergraduate physics with you, sir!

A true dedicated person in UT physics since 2004...it was an honor to take undergraduate physics with you, sir!
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