In a way it’s funny that New College of Florida’s Nick Abboud has won a Frost Scholarship, a fully-paid master’s degree in math and theoretical physics at England’s famed University of Oxford.
Funny, because at Gainesville’s Eastside High, Nick nearly failed his first physics course. But he still wanted to pursue the subject at New College.
“In coming to school, I had a vague idea I was interested in physics and math,” he said. “And now, four years later, hopefully, I’m going to study it for the rest of my life. And I don’t really know what happened in between,” he added, laughing.
Actually, he has a pretty good idea what happened – the College’s unique academic structure, and two professors who provided abundant time and patience.
“The academic flexibility here has worked very well for me,” he said, allowing him to major in both math and physics, and offering small classes. “The independence given to me by New College really motivated me to take an interest in my studies. I’ve had the enormous privilege of being able to study what I want, and that has been empowering for me.”
New College’s small classes and emphasis on student-driven research also made a difference.
“I sometimes imagine what it would have been like if I went to a large university,” he said. “My first physics class would have been gigantic, maybe even online. To me, that sounds like a high school class, where you can blend in too much for your own good. I might never have gotten really motivated, like I did when I came to New College.”
The small class sizes also allow close interaction with professors, which provided him with mentors.
“(Physics professor) Don Colladay, my advisor, has helped me in many ways,” he said. “He is very patient and always willing to spare time to answer questions or discuss problems. I’m not exaggerating. As long as he didn’t have a class to teach, I don’t think he ever turned me away from his door.”
“Then there’s (math professor) Pat McDonald. He has also helped me to think through big decisions, and has helped me find valuable research opportunities. More than that, he’s an immensely inspiring person. If I hadn’t taken my first math classes with him, surely my path would have turned out differently. He once told me that the role of a professor has to be to get the student interested enough to continue their own studies, to put the work in at home.”
Nick’s New College senior thesis is in the area of high-energy physics, titled “Lorentz Violation in the Collective Excitations of Bose-Einstein Condensates.” Greatly simplified, he computed what would happen in a system of condensed dilute atomic gases if Lorentz symmetry – a concept first proposed by Einstein in 1905, which led to the theory of special relativity – were slightly violated, and how this system could be used as a test of Lorentz symmetry.
The Frost Scholarships, funded by the Phillip and Patricia Frost Philanthropic Foundation, are awarded to no more than 10 students a year at Florida public colleges and universities. New College students have won three Frost awards since the program’s founding in 2014.
At Oxford, Nick will do a year of coursework with some of the world’s leading physicists and mathematicians. After that, he plans to pursue a doctorate in physics, because he’s discovered something about that subject that was once so challenging.
“I just like getting lost in the problems, and in the end of them, feeling like I know a little more than I started with,” he said. “It’s just fun to grapple with stuff.”