Whimsical choice leads to love of physics

By CHELSEA ANDERSON/Montana State News

“The really great thing about Kyle, is that he’s a self-sufficient researcher, you give him an outline of a project and he’s able to puzzle through the rest on his own. That’s a really unique quality in an undergraduate, and something you need to be able to do in order to make it in this field.”

– Rufus Cone, chief faculty for MSU optical technology center

If you spend any time with the physics department at MSU, chances are that you know the tall, red-bearded undergraduate, Kyle Olson. Olson has a large presence in the physics department, from the grade-wide study group he is a part of, to the research he does in Rufus Cone’s optics lab. Olson’s involvement in the department comes from his love and appreciation of the field, “I love physics, the science has a really interesting and fundamental way of looking at problems that just makes sense to me.”

When applying to come to school at MSU Olson picked physics on a whim, “When I came to orientation, I actually didn’t remember what I had signed up for as a major, I had to check my packet to see which department I was supposed to visit.”

Since his advent into the study though, he has never wavered.

“When I hear the name Kyle Olson, the next thing I think about is physics, it’s just such a big part of who he is, he’s always talking about it. But not in the same way as other students talk about their major, it’s like his mind is constantly being blown by the things he learns in class,” Olson’s good friend Samantha Cleary says.

The small suburb of Mahtomedi, where Olson grew up, is nearby to the 3M facilities and as such, there was a strong emphasis in his high school on engineering, “I suppose I was intrigued by engineering, but I don’t think I would’ve been very good at it, I’ll never be able to build the best popsicle stick bridge.”

As a result of the school’s emphasis on STEM learning, Olson was able to take a physics class for college credit as a junior in high school, “that was my first experience with physics and I loved it.”

Olson certainly has a life outside of the university, but things in his everyday life always seem to take him back to physics.

“I think the interesting thing about Kyle is how he is always talking about physics, you know? He doesn’t leave that kind of stuff in the classroom. We’ll be out skiing and he’ll bring up some sort of obscure physics topic that he’s been mulling over that somehow applies to what we’re doing,” Sam Hochaulter, Olson’s roommate and friend since freshman year, tries to explain what it is that makes Olson different from other students. “I think he’s just found what it is that really interests him and continues to capture his attention the more he learns about it, and that is really unique.”

Starting his sophomore year, Olson began doing undergraduate research in the optical technology center on campus. “I really love doing research because you never have to focus on the same thing for very long, which is good because I lose interest quickly.” Olson approaches the problems he faces in the lab with an enthusiastic mindset, “I think that solving problems for a living is a really interesting thing to do, and sure it can be frustrating, but it’s really rewarding when things actually go your way.”

Olson got involved in the optics lab when he saw Rufus Cone, the chief faculty of the lab, do a presentation on what his research was. As a part of the curriculum for physics students, there is a seminar expressly used to get the students into undergraduate research. “I think I chose to get in touch with Rufus because in his presentation he not only talked about what kind of research was doing, but he took a lot of time to talk to us about what your undergraduate research should do for you.”

The work Olson does in the lab, ranges from long hours of experimenting, “those are the good days, running the experiments and getting usable data, which doesn’t happen often, is the really fun stuff that keeps me interested in research,” to tedious hours of cataloging equipment, “those days are obviously a little less fun, but it’s all a part of this kind of work.”

Some of the inspiration that keeps Olson working hard in physics, apart from personal interest, is the work that he gets to do with graduate students. There are two graduate students that Olson works with in the lab, “it’s nice on some levels to be able to talk to them about graduate school and see them go through it, but sometimes it really just scares you to think about the amount of work that is required of them.”

Olson is interested in taking his degree in the direction of research, “the thing about research is that you’re always thinking about something new, trying to find answers no one has. In that way physics, and particularly experimental physics, is so different from other careers.”

– edited by Sarah Snebold

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