Boyhood adversity leads to future

Thursday, May 23, 2019
Nathan Schwadron, associate research professor of physics and astronomy

Nathan Schwadron, professor of physics

"When I was in first grade, I fell out of a tree. I went to the hospital; they patched me up and sent me home. Not long after, I start to feel really sick. I ended up having a grand mal seizure and wound up in a coma. After I came out of it, I was in the hospital for more than a month, much of that time on oxygen. I was intensely bored and was constantly looking for things to read that weren’t comics or coloring books. My family brought me everything they could think of; they were desperate to make sure I was comfortable and had what I wanted, and I was desperate to have something to keep my brain occupied and off the bad stuff that was happening

My father brought me in a stack of books. I started with a small pile and read them all. Then I read something by Carl Sagan that involved special relativity, and from there, I consumed everything I could on physics. That opened a whole new world for me. It got my brain working again. I was particularly intrigued by Einstein and would ask a lot of questions of my parents that they couldn’t answer. They were sort of baffled by the questioning, but they seemed relieved that I had something to keep my mind active.

I played sports in elementary, middle and high school. I also enjoyed acting and built sets for the drama club. There was a time when I thought I wanted to be a professional set designer. I loved the connection between art and building. But despite being active and doing all of those things, I still kept feeling like something was missing. Then I took AP physics and found my place. I felt like physics was a pool, and I wanted to dive in.

I studied physics at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan, where I got my Ph.D. I became really interested in space science. Later, while working as a researcher, I became interested in designing and building instruments that would be sent into space. As a physicist, I think of myself as kind of a builder. I love building things. Physics has all the aspects of what drives me; it’s unchartered, sort of like being an explorer.

When I was first searching for what I wanted to do, there was kind of an emptiness. At one point, I thought maybe I’d be a doctor. And then I thought about majoring in chemistry but was concerned that would be too hands-off.  In graduate school, I got interested in space and high-energy particle physics. I enjoyed quantum mechanics. And I then met Tamas Gombosi (director of the Center for Space Environment Modeling at the University of Michigan). He was like a father figure; we worked closely together. At that time, studying theoretical space science was more about analyzing observations than building flight instruments.      

I met my wife (Katharine A. Duderstadt, research scientist in UNH’s Earth Systems Research Center) in grad school. I was quite smitten but tried not to scare her off.  

After we left Michigan, I went to work as a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. That’s where I started developing the skills to build instruments. But I wasn’t as involved as I wanted to be. In 2005, I got a job at Boston University as an associate professor of astronomy. I had a 90-minute commute. It was a stressful job; we had kids. It was a tough time.

Then, in 2010, I got the opportunity to come here and work with Harlan Spence (director of the UNH Institute For The Study Of Earth, Oceans, And Space), and it all came together."

Jeremy Gasowski | Communications and Public Affairs | | 603-862-4465