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Unveiling the Quantum Dream: Collins Kariuki's Odyssey from Nairobi to Pomona

JUN 13, 2024
Exploring Superconductivity, Coding Dreams, and the Quest for Perfect Beef Tacos: The Inspiring Journey of Collins Kariuki through SPS and Beyond.
Collins Kariuki

Collins Kariuki

I really appreciate what SPS has done for me in terms of the financial aspect. The money from the two scholarships really impacted me and the education I received. I got to buy the material that we need for schoolwork, like textbooks.

Given all he has on his plate, it might seem odd that Collins Kariuki is passionate about sleep. When he’s not busy completing his senior year at Pomona College in California, majoring in Computer Science and Physics, Collins has been using any spare time coding an app that tracks sleep patterns. Helping people get the most of their non-waking hours is part of Collin’s overall mission to improve energy efficiency, an interest that extends to applying superconductivity to electrical grids.

An international student from Nairobi, Kenya, Collins has benefitted from several programs sponsored by SPS and underwritten by the AIP foundation. He won an SPS Google Scholarship in 2023 and a Herbert Levy Memorial Scholarship in 2022. In the summer of 2024, Collins will pursue an SPS internship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal research institute based in Maryland.

We spoke with Collins a few months before his Spring 2024 graduation, to talk about his academic journey, his inspirations and the hunt for the perfect beef taco. (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)

When did you first hear about SPS and decide to get involved?

Within the physics and Astronomy department they do a pretty good job of advertising all opportunities, especially for people from marginalized communities like me. I first heard of SPS from the SPS chapter leader at Pomona College.

How did you first become interested in physics?

The Kenyan academic system really put an emphasis on academic performance. In tenth grade I had a passion for a different subject entirely, which was paleontology. I started reading about dinosaurs and I encountered a compound called carbon-14, which is used to date old stuff. And then this led me to chemistry. And then I decided, chemistry is nice, but I like physics better. My physics professor really pushed me to be passionate about physics.

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

Richard Feynman. I went to a boarding school that didn’t allow people to have electronics and stuff. But when I went home, I remember specifically watching his lectures. The textbooks weren’t doing it for me in terms of expanding my horizon in quantum physics. The way he eloquently, for lack of a better word, dumbs it down for a general audience in terms of quantum physics, I really admired that. It formed a solid foundation for why I like quantum physics now.

What simple physics experiment still amazes you?

Newton’s first law of motion. There’s this experiment where you have a small box car, and you have a ball in the car. And as the car moves from point A to point B, the ball is propelled upward, and it bows like an arc and comes down in the same position it was in. I was really amazed when I saw that.

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

That’s a deep one. With my Nobel Prize I hope to have figured out how to spread superconductivity to the general audience, because one of the main drawbacks of superconductivity right now, is it only exists in like, freezing temperatures and under humungous pressure, which isn’t feasible for normal applications in the real world. I’d like to figure out how to incorporate superconductors at a more feasible scale, with the aim of reducing the expenditure of wasted energy in the electricity grid system.

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

Every Friday I look forward to team soccer. That’s the highlight of my week. But I also like having uninterrupted time I can spend on my latest passion coding project. Right now, I’m working on a sleep tracker app. I like sleep and acknowledge the benefits of sleep. If people slept consistently, their lives would be much easier.

Favorite board game?

Scrabble is a fun game. It educates you on different niche words out there that I may not have known. I like expanding my vocabulary because English is my second language. It’s fun playing with my friends. They’re very good at it.

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

Beef tacos. I like them a lot. I don’t often go outside the confines of the campus because I don’t have a car, but when I get a chance to have tacos I really devour them.

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

“The Hunger Games.” I’m also reading the books right now. It’s really entertaining.

What’s the best line?

“May the odds be ever in your favor.”

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

“Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” by Cal Newport. Society right now is very distracted and deprived of deep, uninterrupted work. It really changed how I work. Now, when I sit down to work, I put all of my attention toward what I’m doing. And I’ve seen results. I understand the material better. I tend to appreciate the content, and the end result of the work that I did, even more. It has really been impactful for me.

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 really appreciate what SPS has done for me in terms of the financial aspect. The money from the two scholarships really impacted me and the education I received. I got to buy the material that we need for schoolwork, like textbooks.

Worrying about where I’m where I’m going to get the money to buy these things is an additional stressor, but SPS has removed that stressor and helped me to focus more on the actual schoolwork that I’m supposed to do.

I also appreciate the community that SPS has nationwide. The funds people are contributing don’t go in a void. They plant seeds of appreciation within the recipients’ hearts so the recipients will then contribute in whatever way they can. It has a butterfly effect. It has an impact.

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