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The stars aligned for Scott Tompkins at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.
Tompkins graduated ASU in May with a double major in astrophysics and physics from the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) with honors from Barrett. He researched the composition and life span of stars and completed two theses.
His research on the evolution, life span and composition of stars the size of the sun is the subject of a paper he expects to have published by the end of this year in The Astrophysical Journal, a publication of the American Astronomical Society.
He is set to begin graduate studies in observational astronomy at the University of Western Australia in Perth. He will participate in the SKYSURF project, a collaboration among the University of Western Australia, ASU and other universities. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Tompkins said he may have to attend classes and work on the project online for several months and postpone his move to Australia until around October.
We asked Tompkins to reflect on his undergraduate experience and his future plans. Here’s what he had to say.
Can you explain your theses and the work you did at SESE in terms that a non-scientist can understand? What was it about? What were the foci?
The goal of my research was to understand if and how the composition of stars affected how they died after a bizarre result in a published paper caught my eye. In both of my theses, I tried to replicate this result, but never could. I ran computer models of stars the same size as our sun or smaller and tried to see if what you're made of really does matter at the end of your life, if you're a star that is, and it turned out not to. I did manage to find surprising results where composition produces significant changes before the end of a star's life. These results showed how important carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, which make up much of our bodies and the air around us, are to the sun by seeing what happens when they are taken out. Without these and other heavy elements, our sun would be far too hot for Earth to have life.
What is an interesting moment or accomplishment during your ASU career?
The most interesting moment I remember was during Physics II when I made a circuits project to turn a 9 volt battery into a 12,000 volt capacitor. I was testing it in my dorm room the day before my demonstration. When configured correctly the device would charge my body with a significant amount of static electricity, (sort-of safely). The goal was for me to be able to pick up grains of sand without touching them, and that worked. It worked better when standing on a conductive surface and without realizing it, I discovered how conductive the floor in my dorm's shared bathroom was by accidentally delivering myself with an extremely painful 12,000 volt shock. It is the only time I have cried as an adult and I didn't turn the device on again until I had bought a pair of electrician’s gloves and a metal bar to charge with static instead of myself.
What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
I have always been interested in astronomy and physics and loved learning about it. However, I loved animals more when I was young and wanted to be a veterinarian. When I was 14 though, I lost my childhood cat and at that moment realized that being a veterinarian is a tough job, and that not everybody brings healthy, cute, and loving animals to the vet. I realized many of the people I would be helping would have sick or dying pets, and it was very difficult for me to say goodbye to mine and I felt terrible about having to put him to sleep as he suffered. I knew I would never be able to do that to someone else's pet if I had to and from that point forward I worked to pursue my interest in astronomy and physics.
What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
At ASU I learned that nearly all professors are there to help and are willing to work with students. In high school, all I heard about college were rumors about how professors would throw out your work if it was difficult to read or if you forgot to write your name at the top, how you would never see them and would only see graduate students teaching as professors were too busy with research and didn't put effort into teaching, and other rumors making college classes sound dull and uninteresting. After years of being told all of these false rumors, I expected a very unwelcoming and even hostile environment in the classroom. I found the complete opposite in every course I took at ASU and with every faculty member I had the chance to meet or work with. I don't know where these rumors came from, but it definitely wasn't ASU.
Why did you choose ASU and Barrett, The Honors College?
Being one of three triplet brothers, I knew that the budget for college was going to be tight and short of getting a full ride scholarship I wouldn't be able to afford out of state tuition. During my junior year of high school a few of the top students from the class ahead of me were accepted to Barrett and after visiting told me how great the program looked. After that I made up my mind to go to ASU and Barrett.
Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
My professor for Astronomy 322 and longtime mentor, as well as my thesis director, Dr. Rogier Windhorst, taught me many lessons in and out of the classroom. Most importantly, he taught how to write scientifically and manage my own research project. This experience was necessary for me to complete both of my theses during my senior year and be accepted into a PhD program.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
I would advise those who are unsure about their ability to get involved. Show effort in and out of the classroom and then ask about research. Don’t tell yourself that you aren't smart enough to do research. When I started at ASU, I had a very weak background in math, no background whatsoever in computer programming, and embarrassingly, I thought I knew so much about astrophysics but did not even know how to explain the phases of the moon! After two years I still wasn't confident in my abilities, but after showing effort in the classroom and taking time to discuss material beyond basic coursework with my professors, I was invited to come to the weekly research meetings with Dr. Windhorst and his team. Many faculty members are always looking for undergraduates to assist in their research, and even if they are unable to help you, they are more than willing to point you to others who can. If you are confident and show the effort that professors look for, then most of them will be happy to help you progress outside the classroom.
What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
Without question, my favorite place to be was in front of the Foucault pendulum in the Physical Sciences Building F Wing lobby, especially for the year I worked as a teaching assistant for the first-year astronomy labs. I would eat an early dinner and then go back there to sit and work and if I didn't have work to do, just to relax while waiting for the time to pass before I went to get ready for the astronomy labs. The area is very busy during the day but after 5 p.m. it is quiet most of the time. If you sit there long enough, you will see the pendulum's swing appear to change direction as the Earth rotates underneath it, though it takes about 43 hours to make a complete turn so you have to wait a while to notice a change.
If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
Though I believe it to ultimately be futile, I would try to restore the faith of the average person in science. Many people distrust and disregard the importance of science to their daily lives. My parents tell me how when they were young, America and the world was captivated with the developments of the age such as the moon landings, the development of life-saving vaccines such as the polio vaccine, and the progression from radio to television and then to the internet age. Anti-science movements have had an unfortunate resurgence in recent times and they have very real effects, limiting the amount of funding and public support science gets as a whole. I am not a psychologist or political science expert, but I believe that trying to bring past, present, and future developments of science directly to the public can help solve this problem. There is a large disconnect between research in science and the public, and by the time new scientific information reaches public spheres, it is often distorted, misinterpreted, or even falsified. I would use the money to develop a way for there to be more interaction between academia and the public so they can interact directly and so that the concerns of both parties can be addressed without messaging being manipulated.