I remember sitting in my car crying in my community college’s parking lot, driven home by my parents on a hot fall evening.

Here I was, at an unfamiliar place, along with unfamiliar people, going on with unfamiliar things, one week after getting a zero on a freshman math quiz.

Am I cut out for this?

To understand where I was at the time, you have to go back to where I had come from.

I was born and raised on the island of O`ahu in Hawai`i to a Korean-American mother and a Japanese-American father, neither of whom have college degrees. In spite of this, each had a deep appreciation for academics and encouraged my early interests in the sciences. In the second grade, my mother decided to have me homeschooled due to the shortcomings she saw in the public school system at the time. From that point, my curriculum consisted of daily math and reading exercises - all self-taught. I taught myself the basic math that carries me today and read far more books than I ever care to remember. I took an annual standardized test with other homeschooled students, but otherwise had no close contact with others my own age.

Although I had many friends while I was in public school, I didn’t feel particularly sad to leave them behind. Questions that invariably arise when relating my upbringing to my peers are about the loneliness that they expect I must have felt during my homeschooled years. There certainly were instances when I felt isolated and yearned for close friendships, but I was spared the peer pressure so often endured by students of that age. Critically, I was allowed to pursue topics of study that I loved and excelled in, not being impeded by the rigid structure of formal primary education. I thrived in the freedom and stimulating intellectual environment that homeschooling afforded. This way of learning fostered an early discipline that has proved useful for me as a budding performer.

There certainly were instances when I felt isolated and yearned for close friendships, but I was spared the peer pressure so often endured by students of that age. Critically, I was allowed to pursue topics of study that I loved and excelled in, not being impeded by the rigid structure of formal primary education.

Yes, you read that right. I had been good at math but in my estimation didn’t demonstrate any outstanding talent for it. Rather, my natural affinities guided me toward a career in the arts. In particular, my dream was to be a professional musician. My father, a retired guitarist, helped me cultivate an appreciation for music, and I grew up surrounded by jazz and classical recordings playing in the background of our tiny apartment. I would lose myself within the moving refrains of masters such as Pat Metheny, Sarah Vaughan, Bill Evans, Martha Argerich, Linda Ronstadt, and my favorite, the great Ella Fitzgerald. With these as inspirations, I worked hard during my teen years to prepare for a career in music.

And then, my music career ended before it had even started.

After completing high school and abandoning my music aspiration due to an injury - and also in favor of a more practical career - I decided to study at a local community college to get a sense of what subjects I liked. I quickly learned that I enjoyed my STEM classes very much. I especially thrived in subjects that combined knowledge from different fields. After a brief stint in chemistry, I decided to study math and physics. I thought that these two topics would equip me with the tools to study anything I wanted, regardless of the specialization that I would choose in the future. This interdisciplinary approach would become a recurring theme in my academic life, as I now conduct research that draws on knowledge from multiple fields such as math, physics, chemistry, biology, and even computer science.

Courtesy of Daniel Inafuku

But precisely of my upbringing, I had never even taken a formal class in math or science before college. And there I was, crying in my car and doubting my choice to leave music and pursue science. It was only through countless hours devoted to studying and my training as a homeschooler that allowed me to gain mastery of a new craft. I was also very fortunate to have professors and mentors who actively encouraged my interests and gave me the confidence to continue on the academic track.

I gradually improved and did well enough to transfer to the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, where I continued my studies. Although I had a somewhat favorable start to my classes and began to consider graduate school as a potential future step, I still lacked research experience. I was soon made aware of a program called the McNair Scholars Program, which benefits financially underprivileged students and students from underrepresented and marginalized groups; fortunately, I applied and was accepted. Through this program, I received funding for a research position in an experimental lab where I studied short pulses of light from lasers. I gained a great deal of experience as a junior researcher through this position, and this reinforced my determination to pursue scientific research at an advanced level.

I should point out that although the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa is a medium-sized university (~17,000 students), physics was not the most popular major: I was one of four physics graduates out of a graduating class of approximately two-thousand students. Perhaps because of this, there was a glaring scarcity of peer mentorship. Not that I had much of it coming into college, as I was used to planning my study path myself, but looking back, I feel this lack of resources hindered my ability to prepare for applying to and thriving within an advanced degree program.

I remember awkwardly searching for “best grad schools for physics” in Google and preparing my application requirements within two weeks of their deadlines. Interestingly, I saw a certain “University of Illinois” through a YouTube video and applied there on an impulsive whim. Luckily, this important decision turned out to be one of the best ones that I’ve made in my life.

The Foellinger Auditorium is a landmark of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Courtesy of Daniel Inafuku)

You see, the University of Illinois campus is located across the cities of Urbana and Champaign on the plains of central Illinois, and it is quite different from Hawai`i. There are no oceans, fewer people, no warm weather for nearly half the year (others may argue otherwise), and fields of corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see. Another aspect that I was gradually made aware of upon arriving at graduate school was a social one: my Asian heritage. Hawai`i is known to be a place with a relatively high degree of ethnic diversity, and Asians form a large portion of the population. Because of this, I was privileged to not have to think about my ancestry growing up. Urbana-Champaign is much more homogeneous though (Editor’s note: Champaign County is 72% white); as I drift further and further away from my comfort zone, there’s this constant evolution of who I am and who I think I am.

Looking retrospectively, I wonder about the ways in which I would be different from my current self if I hadn’t left Hawai`i. Graduate school has changed me in many ways, and as much as I dislike its competitive culture and unrealistic job prospects, it has afforded me many unique and unforgettable experiences. I’ve made many new friends; accomplished rigorous academic goals; and given research talks in foreign countries. Surprisingly, my inner performer is alive and well: I’ve acted publicly in a theatre performance alongside a Nobel Laureate... twice! (For those who are interested, I played multiple “quantum” characters, including a photon, an electron, and even a boson in a mysterious state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate!) These are things I would never have imagined myself doing when I was being homeschooled back at the comforts of my home.

a mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. -- G.H. Hardy

Nowadays, I’m working towards completing my Ph.D. and have developed a passion for science communication. I often feel guilty for leaving O`ahu and sacrificing valuable time spent with family, an opportunity cost that many like me must make. And while many of my peers are preparing for “grown-up” careers as professional scientists, I sometimes imagine how my path would be different if I had pursued music instead of science.

Interestingly and perhaps counterintuitively, math, physics, and music are all quite similar in many ways. In these fields, one is always searching for some underlying pattern, whether consciously or unconsciously. In the words of the great British mathematician G. H. Hardy, “a mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns.” Can I look for patterns in the science just as I did in the music? Perhaps I can lose myself all over again in the new refrains of the mathematical world.

Four thousand miles away from home, perhaps the dream isn’t over yet.

Courtesy of Daniel Inafuku

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