22-Year-Old Reflects on Path to Becoming UT Dallas' Youngest PhD
Dec. 18, 2014
When Austin Howard receives his doctorate this week, he will become the youngest person ever to do so at UT Dallas.
He was barely old enough to drive when he began his doctoral work in physics here at age 16, and had graduated summa cum laude from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, where he began his college career as a 13-year-old.
At 22, he’s a pop culture generation away from Doogie Howser, but people still compare him to popular TV characters when they hear about his academic achievements.
“I get Sheldon Cooper now,” he said of the fictional “geek” on the series The Big Bang Theory.
Howard said he has been interested in science since he was “very, very young” — wondering about how the universe worked, or wanting to know how certain machines work.
He attended public school through the seventh grade, and admits there were times he “might have been bored.” When Howard turned 12, the Duke University Talent Identification Program invited him to take the ACT college entrance exam.
“I did really well — in the 99th percentile,” he said.
Howard’s parents decided to map out a different path for their academically gifted son. They enrolled him in college instead of high school.
He was, by far, the youngest person in his physics labs. Being a young adolescent in college provided Howard with some unique experiences.
“Most college students don’t have to wait for their parents to pick them up after school,” he said.
“The reason I came here is the people. The research at UT Dallas is spectacular, but there are amazing people that go along with it. When you’re working for six years in the trenches pulling all-nighters, you need to know you’ll be able to get along.”
Howard tested out of core classes, so he was able to focus on physics and math courses. By the time he was 15, he was a college senior and running the lab as a teaching assistant. Though he was much younger than his classmates, his age wasn’t a problem, he said.
“People, in general, and especially in the sciences, don’t discriminate right away. They realize they can respect you,” Howard said.
After finishing college in three years, Howard thought he had narrowed his prospects for graduate school to Rice University, MIT and Cornell. But when he learned about UT Dallas from a piece on the Science Channel that featured Dr. Ray Baughman of the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute, he and his parents decided to drive down from Wichita Falls for a visit.
They were impressed from the moment they met Marjorie Renfrow, then graduate physics advisor in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
“Her walls were covered with postcards from former students. She loved students like they were her own kids and grandkids,” Howard said.
He also met several UT Dallas faculty members who were more than generous with their time, including Dr. Anvar Zakhidov, professor of physics and associate director of the NanoTech Institute, and Dr. Kyeongjae Cho, professor of materials science and engineering and physics.
Between Renfrow’s hospitality and the expertise of faculty members, Howard was sold on UT Dallas.
“The reason I came here is the people,” he said. “The research at UT Dallas is spectacular, but there are amazing people that go along with it. When you’re working for six years in the trenches pulling all-nighters, you need to know you’ll be able to get along.”
While working on his PhD in physics, he completed a master’s degree in a year and a half. By 17 or 18, he focused on researching superconductors that would transport electricity without any energy loss.
Fall 2014 Graduation
“Typically, you lose 10 to 30 percent of the energy through the wires. With superconductors, it’s the closest thing to perpetual motion. I’ve been studying new types of superconductors, and measuring and characterizing them,” Howard said.
And he began to meet other researchers his own age, because UT Dallas also offers research opportunities to undergraduate students. “That doesn’t happen everywhere,” he said.
Howard has maintained other interests besides physics. A classically trained pianist, he finds it especially relaxing to play pieces by his favorite composers.
“Definitely, Chopin,” he said. “Music is a great escape for me. It’s a good outlet to have.”
As he prepares to graduate, Howard finds his old friends from elementary school are also finishing up their academic careers. It’s just that he is the only one with a doctorate instead of bachelor’s degree.
But he doesn’t regret having taken a nontraditional academic path that circumvented the kind of social life most teenagers experience during their high school years.
“What have I missed out on? I’ve missed the awkwardness in high school; I missed prom. For a lot of people, that’d be hard,” Howard said.
“But I have had a great group of colleagues, and that will be a lifelong bond. For anybody who’s been on the PhD path, your advisor is one of your best friends and most trusted colleagues. No other ‘job’ has such mutual investment.”
Howard already has a full-time job at a software company in Richardson, a career path he wants to pursue for a while. He became intrigued with computer software when he wrote a program to help manage data for his physics research.
He gives back to the University by volunteering time at the NanoTech Institute. And he figures he’s got plenty of time to explore careers.
“I’m happy to have had this head start,” Howard said. “Now I have the freedom to try different careers while still at a young age.”