When Jacob Beckey turns 21 in July, he will be in the midst of a physics research internship with the Quantum Information Science Group at Oak Ridge National Lab, Oak Ridge Tennessee.
He will already have graduated from Clarion University with two bachelor's degrees – one in physics and one in math – that he completed in three years. With a 3.97 GPA.
When he completes the internship in August, he'll have just a few weeks to rest before jetting off to London for orientation for the Fulbright program, through which Beckey will spend a year at University of Birmingham (England). There he will earn a Master of Research degree in quantum technology.
He'll return to the United States in July 2019, only to pack up and head to University of Colorado, Boulder, in the fall, where he will be a first-year graduate student, his tuition and research fully funded by the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program.
"I feel incredibly grateful," Beckey said. He calls it good luck, but he began to prepare for his post-baccalaureate work when he was a high school sophomore.
"As a freshman in high school, I was not a good student," he said. "I wanted to be an artist. I didn't apply myself and had a 2.6 GPA."
That changed the following year when he fell in love – with physics.
"My physics teacher, Dr. Brian Wargo, was a huge influence. He was getting his PhD, and he helped me see the high quality of life that someone has as a scientist. I was super motivated, because I knew what I wanted to do. The rest of (high school), I had a 4.0," Beckey said. "I started looking in 10th grade at what you can do in physics. I started looking at how to get into grad school; I wanted to prepare myself way ahead so I knew what to do as an undergrad."
An integral part of his preparation was choosing where he would do his undergraduate work. Wargo had good advice and laid out the pros and cons of a research university versus a teaching university.
"He said that it's easy to get lost in the shuffle at a large research university, that it's tough to get research there, because everyone wants to do research. And it would put me in debt," Beckey said. "'Or,'" Beckey remembers Wargo telling him, "'You can go to a state school that offers the freedom to study in an environment that's not cutthroat, with more individualized instruction and a more welcoming atmosphere.'"
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's Board of Governors offers tuition waivers based on high school students' SAT scores. Beckey worked to achieve a 1500/1600 on the SAT, qualifying him for a full tuition scholarship. In addition to this Board of Governors funding, he researched the availability of scholarships at Clarion and applied to as many as possible.
"I chose Clarion for cost, proximity to home, and the one-on-one instruction I assumed I'd get and did get," he said.
He came to campus armed with a spreadsheet that detailed his plan to earn two degrees in three years.
"I had to take individualized instruction over the summer for higher level math courses," Beckey said. He presented his spreadsheet to Dr. Jon Beal, math professor, who, with Dr. Carey Childers, Dr. Dana Madison, and Dr. Kate Overmoyer, helped him realize his goal.
Also upon arrival at Clarion University, Beckey introduced himself to physics professors Dr. Sharon Montgomery, Dr. Chunfei Li and Dr. Vasudeva Aravind and said he would love to work with them.
During his freshman year, Beckey was a physics education research assistant for Aravind. His project, "First-order Error Corrections in Introductory Physics Lab," was also the topic of a 10-minute talk he gave at the March 2016 meeting of American Physical Society.
"It was helpful to get experience as a freshman."
The following summer, Montgomery invited him to join her at McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of southwest Texas, where she had reserved time on a historic telescope. The time lined up with the Perseid meteor shower.
"It's one of the darkest places in the United States. It's so dark that if I stepped outside of the lodge, I couldn't see my feet," Beckey said. The weather was cloudy, but they had a window to the sky and saw 60-70 meteors an hour.
In addition to using the 2.1m telescope, Beckey helped operate tracking software; collected flat, bias and comparison spectra; and assisted with data reduction.
Along for the run was Montgomery's research collaborator from UC Berkeley.
"He's British, and he's hilarious. I was able to talk about experiences with two scientists," he said. "For years, I've just wanted to be a scientist; I felt for a short time that I was."
The seven-night observing run resulted in his fall 2016 research project, "Mapping the Heiles Supershell GSH 90-28-17," which he presented in January 2017 at American Astronomical Society's 229th Meeting.
Beckey's journey to University of Birmingham next fall will be his second trip there. Last summer, he was an international REU student in quantum optics. He researched "Simulation of Ponderomotive Squeezed Light in Laser Interferometers," which entailed working within Birmingham's gravitational-wave group to model a method of surpassing the standard quantum limit of an interferometer. He presented that research in January at American Astronomical Society's 231st Meeting.
At University of Birmingham, Beckey worked with Dr. Haixing Miao and Dr. Andreas Freise, who encouraged him to return for further work through the Fulbright program and provided a letter of recommendation.
Back in Clarion, he worked with Dr. Bill Naugle to prepare and submit his Fulbright application. He was notified of the award in mid April.
In part, his congratulatory letter from The J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board noted that the Fulbright is highly competitive and highly selective; additionally, "being selected as an awardee for the United Kingdom is phenomenal since there are a very limited number of awards for this country and many hundreds of applicants."
"I knew going in that it was competitive," Beckey said. He wasn't deterred, but the credentials of other applicants didn't go unnoticed.
"I saw the credentials that people from large schools have. There are entire offices at places like Harvard that help students apply for Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships," he said. "I worked with Dr. Naugle one-on-one. For it to work out feels really great."
When Beckey's PhD is complete, he plans to teach. "It gives me joy to help people understand what I'm passionate about. At the same time, it is alluring to do research that's useful to other scientists. In a perfect world, I will be able to do both."
Beckey would be happy to return to Clarion as a professor.
"Every year, I go back to Freedom Area High School and speak at Dr. Wargo's conference. I tell them all about the great things at Clarion," Beckey said. "If you have the work ethic, you can do the same things at Clarion as you can at Pitt or Penn State. The individualized attention at Clarion and the environment is perhaps even more beneficial than name recognition you get at a larger institution."