Rwandan student makes quantum leap at Hendrix

Rukundo uses a computer to calculate the lifespan of a muon, a short-lived particle produced in earth's atmosphere.CONWAY, Ark. (July 15, 2008) – Before he came to Hendrix last fall, physics major Jean Pierre Rukundo had never used a computer – especially not for physics. This summer, the Rwandan native has spent days in front of a screen, conducting complex calculations. That work is part of a summer Odyssey project that has exposed him to many new machines, from hybrid rockets to ring laser gyroscopes.

The 10-week project, “Thinking Forward: Skills for a Future in Physics,” was designed by the physics faculty and staff to give Rukundo the opportunity to work in-depth with each of them this summer. His five mini-projects include work with seismology, particle physics and rocket science. Rukundo is studying everything from the earth’s crust to the earth’s atmosphere – and beyond.

As a rising sophomore, Rukundo is one of the youngest researchers on campus. Most science majors get their first research experience during the summer between their sophomore and junior years, but Rukundo will make his only visit home to Rwanda that summer.

This project has allowed Rukundo to sample the research opportunities available in the department. At the same time, he is acquiring basic scientific research skills that will benefit him in whichever line of research he chooses.

“To have this ability to work with every physicist and work with every field of physics has opened my eyes to physics,” Rukundo said. “For example, when I worked [on hybrid rockets] with Dr. [Ann] Wright, we had to work in the machine shop and make designs of materials to do experiments. I didn’t know that a physicist can just go and use this machinery. I thought that would be engineering.”

Experimental physics is new to Rukundo, although he came to Hendrix with extensive preparation in mathematics and basic physics. He began taking physics his freshman year of high school, and he specialized in physics and math during the last three years, but there was no lab component to his courses.

“Studying physics was lectures and quizzes,” Rukundo said. “Right now I feel like this is more exciting, because I’m doing physics. I see what I learned, and what it can do.”

On a day-to-day basis, Rukundo’s project is simple: he meets with the professor in the morning, learns a new theory, formula or technique, and spends the day practicing. Although he is only expected to work 30 hours a week, he spends upwards of 40 hours each week in the physics building, and his work continues long after he goes home at night. He assigns himself supplemental reading, to get background for his work.

“Most of the work includes stuff that is much harder than my level, which requires for example to have studied quantum physics or general relativity or electronics,” Rukundo said. “I didn’t have those courses before but I tried to adjust, make some reading. Even though I didn’t have the background, I now have kind of a general idea and see how interesting things are.”

When asked if he feels like he works too much, Rukundo laughed.

“I have been wishing this for a long time,” he said. “In high school I wanted to work on physics only. Even here at Hendrix I want to work on physics only, but it’s impossible.”

Following the liberal arts tradition, Hendrix students are required to fulfill general education requirements. This summer, though, Rukundo has been able to dedicate himself fully to the science he loves. Now entering his ninth week of the project, Rukundo is wrapping up his fourth sub-project and beginning his fifth.

“We have kept him very busy, and he has kept us very happy with his quality of work and positive attitude toward research,” said Dr. Todd Tinsley, Rukundo’s advisor and project sponsor. “I would be hard pressed to think of a better outcome than that!”

Rukundo is one of four Rwandan students who entered their freshman year at Hendrix last fall. The students, who are all majoring in math or science, have received full, four-year scholarships through the Rwandan Initiative, a program to rebuild the technological infrastructure that was destroyed in the country’s 1994 genocide. After they complete their educations, the students agree to return to Rwanda to work for at least five years.

Now in its second year, the program has expanded greatly. This fall, 25 new students will enroll at schools across Arkansas and South Carolina, including six at Hendrix. The incoming students are currently enrolled in an English as a Second Language course at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock – an essential element that was missing in the program’s inaugural year.

Rukundo came to the United States fluent in Kinyarwanda and proficient in French, but with little English experience. After a rough first semester, during which he took Calculus I just to learn the American mathematical symbols, he skipped Calculus II and headed straight for Multivariable Calculus.

Despite the language barrier, which he has since bridged admirably, he has shown himself to be one of the college’s strongest physics students. He earned Dean’s List recognition this spring with a 4.0 grade point average.

After graduation, Rukundo plans to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in physics. Because there is no graduate-level physics program offered in Rwanda, he will need to complete his studies abroad. He is anxious to return home with a Ph.D.

“I can’t live without Rwanda,” he said. “I will live in Rwanda and teach physics.”

He particularly hopes to address Rwanda’s need for physics professors.

“If we got one or two, we could also have a grad school in physics,” he said. “We don’t have it because there are no professors. I think I will be needed there.”

Rukundo’s summer project was sponsored and funded by the Hendrix Odyssey program, a curricular program that offers funding and credit for experiential learning projects at home and abroad.

“Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning” is a major component of the Hendrix curriculum. The philosophy is, “You learn more when you do more.” Each student is required to complete three Odyssey experiences selected from six categories: artistic creativity, global awareness, professional and leadership development, service to the world, undergraduate research, and special projects. Rukundo’s project was Professional and Leadership Development.

Hendrix, founded in 1876, is a selective, residential, undergraduate liberal arts college emphasizing experiential learning in a demanding yet supportive environment. The college is among 165 colleges featured in the 2008 edition of the Princeton Review America’s Best Value Colleges. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. For more information, contact Mark Scott at scottm@hendrix.edu or 501-450-1462.