Keith Hawkins

Keith Hawkins

Photographer: Ben Siegel

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Leaps and light years: Keith Hawkins wastes no time finding his academic niche in black hole research

Keith Hawkins is not your average astrophysicist. As early as his sophomore year of high school, he was researching black holes alongside Ohio University astronomers. By his junior year of high school, his research was ranked in the top 15 physics and astronomy projects in the world among high schoolers.

Today as a senior astrophysics major in OHIO's Honors Tutorial College, that record of excellence continues, thanks to the support of dedicated faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

This past summer, Compass caught up with Hawkins while he was completing a research assistantship on black holes at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, HI. Here's what he had to say on his Ohio University experience:

How did you get connected with OHIO?

It started during sophomore year of high school when I qualified for the State Science Fair in Columbus. Every year Ohio University sends a few people to judge the fair. I was judged by (Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy) Markus Bottcher, among others ... He liked my research on black holes and invited me to OHIO in the summer to do research.

What was that experience like?

It was an incredible opportunity. What was phenomenal about it is that I was too young to stay at the dorms, so Dr. Bottcher put me up in his own house. I stayed with him for a few weeks and worked with astronomers from Ohio University. That's how I learned about OU.

What became of that research?

I took the research that I did at Ohio University, and I turned it into another science project, which I entered into state, national and international competitions. My junior year, I won the poster competition in nationals and the fourth grand award in international competition. My senior year, I was one of six winners in the national junior science and humanities symposium and went on to represent the United States at the Youth National Science Forum in London. It was like being at the Olympics.

Why did you decide on Ohio University?

I felt at home with the department. Meeting Dr. Bottcher really inspired me to come to and study at Ohio University, and the Honors Tutorial College was an incredible opportunity to study 1-on-1.

Did scholarships play into your decision?

My tuition is fully funded by a Templeton Scholarship, which gives me freedom to focus my attention on my studies. I have also received the Shipman Scholarship through the Physics and Astronomy Department every year since my junior year of high school. It helps offset the cost of expensive textbooks. And for me, because I have a full scholarship, any leftover money I use to offset the cost of attending and presenting at national science conferences . . . which is a really big thing for an up-and-coming astronomer to do. Going to conferences and networking is incredibly important, and I wouldn't have had that opportunity without the Shipman Scholarship. The costs just add up pretty quickly.

How did Professor Bottcher impact your studies?

Meeting Dr. Bottcher helped reinforce and push my career in astronomy light years forward. He has co-authored me on three papers by now, and I am doing ongoing research with him in the fall.

What are your future career plans?

After I graduate, I plan on getting my PhD in astrophysics. My hope is to become a professor and do research and outreach. Specifically, I'm interested in outreach related to minorities. Besides myself, there are not many minorities in this field, so I'd really like to make an impact there.

How important is it for you to give back?

When I came in freshman year, I made it a goal to work with the science fair, whether that meant working with students or teachers or judges. For me it was a chance to give back but also to inspire students to go into astronomy. It's also a chance to educate people that there's money in science that you can win. And all you have to do is be willing to work for it and put together a good research project.