Research Communications

Star struck 

Crush inspires cosmic research

Nov. 4, 2010

Keith Hawkins discovered his passion for galaxies at age 11 when he started checking out encyclopedias on astronomy from his school’s library in Canton, Ohio.

But it wasn’t an inherent love of science that initially drove him. “It was because of a girl,” he Ohio University student admits.

The two fifth-graders would sift through hundreds of pages filled with illustrations and photographs of the Milky Way and distant planets. Though the girl’s family moved away at the end of the school year, Hawkins’ interest in astronomy didn’t wane.

Keith Hawkins
Keith Hawkins.

While only a sophomore in high school, he started conducting research on supermassive black holes with Ohio University astrophysicists Tom Statler and Markus Böttcher, whom he met in 2007 at a state science fair.

“I felt in place, but like I had a lot to prove to the graduate students,” Hawkins says of working with the university researchers. “I was young, it was difficult, but they eventually saw that I was a valuable part of the team.”

Hawkins won two national science fairs while attending Glen Oak High School in Canton, Ohio, for projects related to the evolution of black holes and galaxies. He also racked up many accolades: an award at the International Science and Engineering Fair, sponsored by the Intel Corporation, that ranked him among the top 15 young physics researchers in the world, as well as an invitation to the prestigious London International Youth Science Forum, where he represented U.S. high school science students.

Hawkins was invited to the American Astronomical Society meeting, a dream come true for the 18-year-old. Though he initially declined to present his research because he didn’t think it was ready for a professional conference, numerous scientists told him that his work was on par with that of master’s degree students.

Now a first-year student who is academically a junior at Ohio University, Hawkins and Böttcher spent a week in December in Tucson, Arizona, at the MDM Observatory, which is co-owned  by Ohio University.

MDM Observatory in Tuscon, Arizona
MDM Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. Student astrophysicists such as Keith Hawkins can travel to the university’s observatory to conduct research on topics ranging from black holes to galaxy evolution.

“I was living the life of an astronomer; working from 6:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m., observing objects billions of light-years away,” Hawkins says. “It was a very surreal experience, solidifying that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Hawkins returned to Arizona in summer 2010, where he worked as a research assistant at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, studying the fusion of star systems and how the abundance of certain elements, including oxygen and carbon, change as these star systems evolve.

He’s well on his way to launching a career in the field of astrophysics.

Despite his many academic accolades, Hawkins still thinks fondly of his fifth-grade crush who started it all.

“I intend to send her one of  my medals,” he says. “I owe a  lot to her.”

By Bridget Peterlin

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.