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Ryan Tollefsen in front of Kidder Hall

Goldwater scholar is “a physicist to his fingertips”

By Srila Nayak

Ryan Tollefsen, honors physics and mathematics student

Ryan Tollefsen is one of four Oregon State University students awarded the 2019 Goldwater Scholarship. Tollefsen, an Honors College double major in physics and mathematics, has an outsized talent for knotty research projects pertaining to thin-film semiconductors and spinning colloidal matter. Calling himself a “physicist to his fingertips,” Tollefsen aspires to be a professor of physics one day, specializing in quantum cosmology and applications of nuclear fusion.

In addition to Tollefsen, Biochemistry and molecular biology students Isabella Karabinas and Kendra Jackson and engineering major Kyzer Gerez also received the prestigious 2019 Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s top undergraduate award for sophomores and juniors in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Tollefsen, who will be a senior next fall, felt inspired to apply for the Goldwater Scholarship after fellow physics major Mirek Brandt won the Goldwater award in 2017. His extensive preparation certainly helped. Tollefsen started taking graduate-level physics as a sophomore and he is on track to complete the entire graduate-level quantum mechanics and electromagnetic theory sequences by the end of his senior year.

“I find great satisfaction in learning about the universe, and theoretical physics will remain as one my core scientific interests. By the time I reach graduate school, I will be uniquely prepared for high-level field theory,” said Tollefsen.

In the lab of physics professor Oksana Ostroverkhova, he pursues research on developing stable and durable thin-film semiconductors. A skilled programmer, Tollefsen has created a code in Python and Labview to help automate and control complex experiments on semiconductors for his laboratory.

A Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) fellowship, awarded to top-performing undergraduates from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, took Tollefsen to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in summer 2018. He further strengthened his computational skills by working on a project related to spinning magnetic particles in the Physics of Living Systems lab at MIT— a specialized center which studies biophysics, ecological dynamics and other topics in nonequilibrium systems. The MIT Summer Scholars program, begun in 1983, has a hallowed reputation for bringing the best science and engineering undergraduates in the country to the university for graduate-level materials research.

Tollefsen explains that his goal was to create a molecular dynamics simulation engine in FORTRAN, which would allow his group to corroborate experimental results and model physical systems that are too complex to create in-lab. Currently, Tollefsen is writing a paper capturing the high-impact results he obtained on the project.

“I can now confidently state that there couldn’t have been a better undergraduate program for me than OSU physics."

Via independent study, Tollefsen learned three new coding languages to help him tackle his research project at MIT in a short span of eight weeks and taught himself how to remotely manage computing clusters. “I discovered that a scientist must be a proactive learner; he must be willing to develop new skills whenever the research warrants it,” Tollefsen observed.

Physics majors like Tollefsen enjoy rigorous and collaborative learning experiences in the OSU physics department, long recognized as one of the country’s most pioneering undergraduate physics programs. The department was one of three in the country to win the American Physical Society’s award for Improving Undergraduate Education in 2018.

“The Department of Physics at OSU does an excellent job at preparing its majors with coding, digital electronics and numerical simulations skills,” says Tollefsen.

He graduated from Lake Oswego High School in Oregon. By his own admission, Tollefsen was an indifferent student and didn’t regard himself as particularly gifted in mathematics and science during his earlier school years. He made a split-second decision to switch his major while standing in line for an orientation event at OSU. “I joined the line as an engineering major, and I exited having made up my mind to switch my major to physics.”

Tollefsen credits the highly supportive, nurturing and friendly atmosphere, not to mention the excellent teaching, in the physics department for helping him achieve his academic potential. In high school, he had been surrounded by highly gifted classmates who went on to gain admission at elite, selective universities across the country.

“I can now confidently state that there couldn’t have been a better undergraduate program for me than OSU physics. Interacting with physics professors, friends and doing research in Weniger Hall have been the happiest parts of my educational journey so far,” shared Tollefsen.

The budding physicist has encountered and overcome significant obstacles on his path to academic success. Diagnosed with dyslexia, Tollefsen has encountered lifelong difficulties with reading starting from elementary school. He was able to thrive gradually as he discovered that his strong visual and spatial reasoning skills helped him perform well in mathematics and physics.

Tollefsen’s journey to college was also beset by financial difficulties. Relying on scholarships to support his undergraduate studies, Tollefsen found himself falling short by $1,300 in tuition at the end of his first year. Strong support by physics faculty and the College of Science administration led to OSU covering his fees and allowing him to register for the following academic year.

Straight-A student, Tollefsen’s impressive academic achievements have garnered him a number of awards and scholarships. Other than the Goldwater Scholarship, he has received the David B. Nicodemus Memorial Scholarship in Physics and OSU’s Finley Academic Excellence Scholarship. He has also been awarded the Ruth A. Beyer Honors College Scholarship, the Wayne R. and Julie Claire Spesock Memorial Scholarship and the College of Science’s Harriet R. Anderson Scholarship.

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