Having enrolled as a freshman in 2009, Chaele Nicholson was on track to graduate this year until a decision to switch majors pushed his schedule off by a year. By his own account, it’s probably the smartest move he has ever made.
“I started out as a computer information systems major, largely on the advice of my parents,” Nicholson says. “But in my first semester, I took Professor Saavik Ford’s astronomy course and everything changed.”
Ford picks up the story: “This was an introductory course mainly for non-science majors,” she says. “But after a few weeks, I noticed that Chaele was asking extremely insightful questions. So I asked him if he’d like to work with me and Professor Barry McKernan on an astrophysics research project.”
The work, which would take place at the American Museum of Natural History, involved looking into the heart of distant galaxies. Nicholson jumped at the offer.
New frontiers—and daunting realities
It was an exciting time for Nicholson, but financial pressures were bearing down on him. “My parents were helping me with my tuition, but I needed to work at McDonalds to make ends meet,” he says. “I knew that I had to find some sort of financial aid if I was to continue my coursework.”
The needed funding came in the form of a BMCC Foundation scholarship and several stipends from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. As an LSAMP grant recipient, Nicholson took part in a research program in the summer of 2010. Last fall, with Nicholson averaging 10-15 hours a week on his research at the Museum, Ford and McKernan proposed a bold idea: Would he consider changing his major from computer information to computer science?
“My first reaction was ‘no, no, no',” Nicholson says. But the case for switching was compelling. “Professors Ford and McKernan explained that if I were to stay with computer information, I might not be able to transfer all of my credits to a senior college,” he says. “Having a double major—in computer science and physics—would address that problem.”
To be sure, the decision to change majors wasn’t to be taken lightly: Nicholson would have to make up a number of credits in math and the sciences, delaying his graduation by a year. “But astrophysics had become incredibly interesting to me,” Nicholson. “Now I’d be able to combine it with another passion—computer science.”
Best in his field
Nicholson has already made his mark in his chosen field: In April, he was named “Most Outstanding Presenter” in the Environmental Science and Ecology category at the 2011 Urban University Series’ “Einsteins in the City” Conference. His presentation was based on his investigation of x-ray and infrared radiation in black holes and active galactic nuclei.
“It was exceptional work, and Chaele beat out some 75 other recipients from across the nation and Austria, including many from prestigious senior colleges,” says McKernan. “We are very proud of him.”
With a year to go before he graduates, Nicholson is looking ahead to senior college, a doctorate, a career in aerospace engineering.
“It’s hard to put into words my appreciation for what Professors Ford and McKernan did for me,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with incredible mentors. They not only taught me about astronomy and astrophysics, they provided a sympathetic ear and pushed me to achieve my dream.”