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Empowering Pathways: Barkotel Zemenu's Journey with SPS at Yale University

JUN 13, 2024
Yale University student Barkotel Zemenu credits SPS and the scholarships he received from the AIP Foundation for providing financial support and opportunities for personal and academic growth.
Barkotel Zemenu

Barkotel Zemenu

Physics is just not one of those things you can do alone.

With passions that range from electromagnetism and linguistics to science history, Barkotel Zemenu is a high achiever even by the standards of his undergraduate college, Yale University. Graduating in Spring 2024 with a major in Physics, Barkotel’s research focus has been in high energy physics, quantum gravity and astrophysics. An international student from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Barkotel’s studies have taken him to four continents and several U.S. states.

He credits the Society of Physics Students (SPS) and the SPS scholarships he received that were underwritten by the AIP Foundation for helping him advance his education and find his community. Barkotel has a long list of achievements through SPS and the AIP federation. He earned two of the most prestigious scholarships supported by the Foundation: the 2023 SPS Jocelynn Bell Burnell Outstanding Leadership Scholarship and a Sigma Pi Sigma Leadership Scholarship. He was a finalist presenter at the 2022 SPS Physics Congress, won Top Oral Presenter honors at the April 2023 meeting of the American Physics Society (APS), and was an award-winner at the 2022 Fall Meeting of the APS Division of Nuclear Physics. He is co-president and former outreach co-chair of the Yale SPS Chapter and an undergraduate teaching assistant for six physics courses.

Barkotel also studies foreign languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and Ancient Greek.

We spoke with Barkotel a few months before his graduation, to talk about his academic journey, his inspirations and the physics of ping pong. (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)

How did you first become interested in physics?

I did all my education before college in Ethiopia, where you have to take physics starting from seventh grade, so I was exposed to physics pretty early on and I enjoyed it as a subject. When I was applying for colleges, I was more into reading history books, particularly biographies of eighteenth and nineteenth-century scientists, so I applied to Yale as a double major in history and applied math. But after I applied, I was finding myself more intrigued by the science they were describing in the biographies. And after reading (Richard) Feynman lectures on physics I somehow dared to switch my major altogether.

If you weren’t studying to become a scientist, what would you be majoring in?

Languages! The Yale departments in languages like Hebrew, Chinese, Ancient Greek, and I took some bit of Arabic, they’re pretty strong. I actually spent most of my final two years of college taking language classes. I’m like, I go to this really well-resourced liberal arts school and am I just going to take science courses? It was a no-brainer.

Name one of your science heroes who isn’t J. Robert Oppenheimer.

It would still start with a J. It would be James Clerk Maxwell.

Maxwell’s rainbow! He discovered the electromagnetic radio spectrum.

Yeah, exactly. I mean, he’s one of the three towering giants, right with Newton and Einstein.

I remember reading through Maxwell’s biography and getting to know the scientist through a very personal lens. I was like, wow, this guy has had such a full, fulfilling life. He’s just so full of depth, not just in his science but also in his convictions and relationships. I think that really drew me toward both history and physics. Immediately after I finished my high school electromagnetism course, I made the four Maxwell equations my profile picture.

What simple physics experiment still amazes you?

I think if there’s anything that drives people away from physics, it’s the inclined plane. But as Galileo demonstrated, it’s a remarkably simple tool that allows pretty much anyone to measure gravitational acceleration on the surface of the planet, by literally rolling balls down a plane that is at an incline. When you’re doing the lab you might find it so boring, but the simplicity is really, really interesting. You can actually measure how fast pretty much everything on the surface of the earth speeds up, independent of its mass.

It’s 2064 and you’ve won the Nobel Prize. What problem did you solve for humanity?

I take it for granted that the “you” is plural, because I think any problem that we currently have is very much going to be a team effort to solve. So, by 2064 I think “we” have hopefully figured out what this thing called dark matter is, because at this point in time we really don’t know what 95 percent of the universe is. Only five percent of the universal matter-energy content is known. As much as the physics advances in the 20th century are impressive, there is just a sheer amount of the universe we have no idea about.

Any favorite hobbies or pastimes that you wished you could spend more time doing?

I’m a huge fan of ping pong. I taught a summer class at Yale called The Physics of Ping Pong to middle- and high-schoolers as co-chair of outreach for the Yale SPS chapter. We covered a lot of things, but particularly focused on something called the Ma Lin ghost serve, which is nearly impossible to return. We talked about how you want to angle your paddle, how fast you want your wrists to be going, how high you want to throw the ball. I hope the kids enjoyed it. I enjoyed it.

Favorite board game?

This past winter break, I played Uno incessantly with my little cousins. They’re ages nine, seven and four. They just don’t tire of it. It’s not that it’s a great game. But it’s a precious way to spend time with my cousins and Uno always reminds me of them.

What’s your go-to comfort food after a long study session?

Anything that my mom makes, especially Ethiopian injera [a sour fermented pancake-like flatbread with a slightly spongy texture].

What’s a movie you’ve watched so many times you stopped counting?

“Captain Phillips.”

Oh yeah, the Tom Hanks movie about modern-day pirates. What’s the best line?

“They’re not here to fish.”

What book or author has made the biggest impact on you?

“Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted,” by Suleika Jaouad. Suleika is a leukemia cancer patient. Her doctor had told her “I think it’s about time for you to live each day as if it’s your last.” But after trying to live that way, she came to realize a much better philosophy would have been to live each day as if it was your first. To walk into each day with that sense of curiosity and child-like joy about everything, mundane or big, in this world, at every turn of life. It’s a very perspective-altering book.

How has the support you’ve received from the AIP Foundation, along with SPS, Sigma Pi Sigma and APS, helped you in your college experience?

I did my first year entirely in Ethiopia, because of Covid, so it was a bunch of 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. classes. It was hard to stay connected. So, when I came here, I really wanted to have that space where, along with other physics majors, we could get to share our interests and our goals. The SPS Chapter at Yale gave me that.

The support I’ve gotten from SPS, Sigma Pi Sigma and APS has really helped me stand out in my graduate school applications. I’ve enjoyed these opportunities to participate in national conferences, be part of SPS and have our Yale chapter recognized with the Outstanding Chapter Award. I encourage people to participate in SPS, if not for all the amazing opportunities, then at least for the national recognition that comes along with it.

At the individual level, this personal recognition carries financial support or financial awards, which are really encouraging for people who might otherwise not be able to find such sources of funding or awards or national spotlight. I’m really grateful that the funding levels are what they are and that they exist. I’ve only been encouraging more people at my Chapter to keep these award opportunities on their radar.

Above all, I think the community aspect is irreplaceable. There’s a reason I wanted to change the personal pronoun to “we” in your earlier question. Physics is just not one of those things you can do alone.

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