RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Listening to Connor Richards, one might easily mistake him for a graduate student. His grasp on high energy physics is solid, his explanations of abstruse concepts in particle physics both clear and complete.
But Richards is a second-year undergraduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside, and has just won a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, considered by many to be the most prestigious undergraduate award given in the sciences, with only about 300 students nationwide earning one each year.
"This is an incredibly humbling honor," said Richards, 20, who expects to graduate in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in physics. "The generous monetary award — $7,500 per year for my junior and senior years of study — will really allow me to focus on my classes and research. I think, more than anything, this is a testament to the wonderful opportunities that UC Riverside and the University Honors Program offer students."
The Goldwater Scholarship is the latest of many awards Richards has won. He is the recipient of the University of California Regents Scholarship, a Dean's Academic Distinction Award, a University Honors Enrichment Scholarship, a Robert Wild Family Scholarship, a Michael Devirian Scholarship and a Ben Shen Memorial Scholarship. He has consistently made the Chancellor's Honors List and the Dean's Honor List at UCR.
"Connor has all of the qualities of a highly successful student with a very bright future," said Owen Long, a professor of physics with whom Richards has worked most closely. "He is one of the most motivated, earnest, academically talented students that I have come to know in ten years at UCR. If you talk to him about science, his unabashed deep curiosity comes through. He has the drive, maturity, and ability to achieve his goals. I believe the Goldwater Fellowship selection committee correctly saw its investment in Connor as a very safe bet."
"The Universe," a television series on the History Channel, first got Richards interested in physics. He was a freshman then in West Hills High School in San Diego County, living in Santee.
"Soon I was fascinated by problems like dark matter and dark energy, and I wanted to learn more about physics," he said. "The summer I graduated from high school, physicists at CERN found the Higgs boson. I stayed up, into the wee hours of the morning on July 4, 2012, to watch the live webcast of the results."
With Long and other physics faculty members at UCR, Richards is participating in research at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that aims to detect evidence of supersymmetry.
"This work is especially important, in part, because of its implications for dark matter — the missing mass that accounts for around 27 percent of the energy in the universe," Richards said. "Supersymmetry, which proposes an entire new set of particles in addition to those with which we are familiar, provides us with an excellent candidate for dark matter. We are attempting to indirectly detect these particles by looking at extremely high energy proton-proton collisions at the LHC."
Dark matter represents one of the most fundamental problems in physics today. Currently, physicists are unable to explain 95 percent of the universe, a sizable chunk of which is dark matter. Finding evidence of supersymmetry could greatly help enhance our understanding of dark matter.
"This research has the potential to answer some of the most important questions we have about the universe," Richards said. "Understanding the identity of dark matter would be a fantastic achievement. It is, however, only one of a handful of fundamental problems that supersymmetry could explain."
He explained that high energy physics is a field that continually pushes the boundaries of scientists' understanding of the universe. Experiments like those at the LHC allow scientists, including budding ones like him, to probe new physics like supersymmetry.
Richards can be seen on campus carrying a Nalgene water bottle with him everywhere. He punctuates his day by eating a variety of fruit. He believes in eating an apple a day and getting eight hours of sleep each night.
A typical day sees him attending classes at UCR in the late morning, finishing by the early afternoon. Balancing his classes with research and teaching presents a daily challenge for him. On some days, he either tutors in the afternoon or works on homework or research. Somehow, he finds time to work out in the gym. He manages to do outreach activities mostly on the weekends.
Richards plans to pursue a faculty position in high energy physics at a research university, preferably in California.
"I grew up here, and, as a third-generation San Diegan, I feel a very strong connection to the area," he said. "I am passionate about improving our K-12 educational system here as well as facilitating more science education early in students' academic development. I want to help expose young minds to the beauty of science."
His motivation to do research stems from his intense curiosity, which began when he was a child.
"I am trying to answer the same questions now that I was asking in my early teens," he said. "I never got the answers, so I kept asking the questions. Eventually, instead of answering them, someone finally told me, 'I don't know, help me figure out the answer.' That, to me, is research. It begins with you not getting the answer to a burning question and then deciding to look for the answer yourself."
Richards hopes he finds answers in the course of his career to some critical questions about the universe.
"It's every physicist's dream," he said. "I want to understand the universe, its composition, its evolution, its fate. I enjoy learning about these topics way too much to ever want to stop!"
His advice to high school students who may be considering majoring in physics in college is to not be scared of studying physics — or science, in general.
"Never taken a physics class before? That's okay!" he said. "I took 'Honors Physics,' my first ever physics class, as a senior in high school; my school didn't offer AP Physics. Don't think you're limited by the courses your high school offers. If you think you want to study something in college, physics or not, try it! You will be better for the experience, and you might just fall in love with the subject, as I did. And definitely meet with university admissions counselors that visit your high school."
Indeed, it was a UCR admissions counselor visiting West Hills High who got Richards interested in the campus, impressing him with a "thorough and objective explanation of the benefits of attending UCR."
"He spoke about the close-knit research community and the ample opportunities for undergraduates to get involved. I knew right then where I was headed," Richards said.
The most appealing aspect of UCR for him remains the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the teaching methods it employs.
"I was promised a 3:1 student to faculty ratio, class sizes smaller than 30 students, and more research opportunities than I knew what to do with, and the department more than delivered on all of these," he said. "I cannot speak highly enough of the department, the chair and the faculty advising committee, and everything they do for the students. UCR has given me opportunities I know I wouldn't easily find elsewhere."
The University of California, Riverside is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion. A broadcast studio with fiber cable to the AT&T Hollywood hub is available for live or taped interviews. UCR also has ISDN for radio interviews. To learn more, call (951) UCR-NEWS.