Harvey Mudd Senior Receives $10,000 Astronaut Scholarship for Many Talents

Paul Riggins HM ’12 has a busy schedule. With classes, string theory research for his thesis, tutoring appointments with underclassmen through Harvey Mudd College’s (HMC) Academic Excellence Program, and graduate school applications, Riggins has his fair share of academic commitments.

But Riggins, who has earned a spot on the dean’s list since his first year, which requires a minimum 3.0 GPA, also manages to balance his academic endeavors with extracurriculars like Chamber Choir, the a cappella group Mood Swings, and the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

“Staying well-rounded very much helps one stay sane and have a better perspective on what things are important in life,” Riggins said. “Sure, it’s great to get good grades or do a nice research project or whatever, but I’ve found that getting too lost in those academics can really skew one’s priorities.”

Last spring, Riggins, a physics major, was recognized for his various interests and accomplishments when he became one of 26 students nation-wide to receive a $10,000 scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF), an organization founded by former United States astronauts that recognizes students studying science, technology, engineering, or math who also stay active outside the classroom.

During an award ceremony on Oct. 4, Riggins was presented with a check by former U.S. astronaut Bruce McCandless II, who famously made the first-ever untethered free flight in space during the space shuttle missions of the 1980s.

According to ASF Communications Director Beth Higdon, Astronaut Scholars are top performing juniors or seniors selected from 26 participating colleges and universities. The first Astronaut Scholarship to be awarded to an HMC student came in 1987.

“They should be the best of the best,” said Higdon of the Scholars. “They have to be in the lab doing research and then also involved outside the classroom, so they’re not just concentrating on their class work but also making a difference in their community.”

Riggins said he believes that both his work teaching physics to underclassman and the extensive research he has done with professors played a significant role in his nomination. Riggins did algebraic geometry research with mathematics professor Dagan Karp during the summer of 2010, focusing on applications of mathematical string theory.

“[Riggins] is extraordinarily motivated, seeking opportunities to learn and conduct research at every turn,” Karp wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “Paul is also remarkably creative, finding unique solutions to problems both in class and in independent research.”

“In research he conducted with a group under my direction, they produced a beautiful solution to a problem at the interface of algebraic geometry and theoretical physics,” Karp added.

This past summer Riggins began research for his thesis with physics professor Vatche Sahakian, his thesis advisor, who calls Riggins “a brilliant student.” Riggins’s thesis research focuses on physical string theory.

“We are studying what string theory has to say about black holes, particularly what happens to things that get thrown into black holes,” Riggins said. “String theory makes some unique predictions that other theories of gravity don’t, and so we’re trying to figure out… what this can tell us that’s new that might help get an idea of how it relates to the old theories.”

Along with the $10,000 award, which will go toward his tuition bills, Riggins will travel to Florida in May for a gala, where he will meet with the other 25 Astronaut Scholars from around the country.

“[Scholars] present to one another what they’re working on; it’s a great way for them to build relationships with other Astronaut Scholars,” Higdon said. “They also get to meet all of the astronauts that are involved with our organization, and they become mentors for our Scholars.”

Riggins said he is deciding whether to apply for fellowships for next year. Graduate school is definitely on the horizon, he said.

“The goal is to go off to graduate school for physics, get my Ph.D in physics, probably do [postdoctoral research] somewhere, and then eventually land a position as a college or university professor to teach physics and do research,” Riggins said.

According to Holly Hauck, Assistant to the Dean of Faculty at HMC, students are nominated for the Astronaut Scholarship by the Department Chairs Committee, which is composed of the seven HMC department heads and the Dean of Faculty. From an initial list of about 40 potential candidates generated in the fall, the committee chooses two students whose applications are submitted to the ASF in March, Hauck said. According to Higdon, a group composed of Astronaut Scholar alumni, the director of the ASF, astronauts, and professors associated with the ASF chooses the winners and announces its decision in May.

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