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Out of this world experience: Dutch Fork High student assists astronomy professor at USC

COLUMBIA – Dutch Fork High School rising senior Matthew Hawkins is getting a closer look this summer at what his future might be. Hawkins is working as a research assistant to University of South Carolina astronomy professor Dr. Varsha Kulkarni.

During a campus visit earlier in the year, Hawkins found out about the opportunity for high school students to assist professors over the summer at USC. He knew he had to take advantage.

“I am very interested in astronomy and could definitely see myself studying this in college,” Hawkins said. “When I found out that Dr. Kulkarni had a program for high school students to help her research in the summer, I knew that this was the perfect way to get my foot in the door.”

Hawkins is currently in the middle of his four-week internship, where he spends five to six hours Monday through Friday assisting Dr. Kulkarni’s group in their research on the chemical evolution of galaxies in the universe, especially the nature of interstellar dust grains in distant galaxies.

“I have been very impressed with the amount of interest Matthew has shown,” Dr. Kulkarni said. “Outside of the hours he spends here working on his project, he has been reading about astronomy in his own time. He has especially shown an interest in black holes.”

In the case of astronomy, Kulkarni says the amount of time it takes to grasp certain concepts can be time-consuming.

“Matthew has put in a lot of work in a short amount of time,” Kulkarni said. “The work he is doing definitely takes time. He has to go through a lot of literature online. He is doing a great job.”

Growing up, Hawkins says he always would look at the sky at night and wonder what existed, but never saw it as something that could potentially become a career until about middle school. After discovering famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hawkins began taking earth and space much more seriously.

Hawkins says his time spent in the astronomy lab has helped him tremendously as he prepares to enter his senior year and looks ahead to where he wants to spend his college years.

“Studying this information has definitely helped my computer skills and it has given me a glimpse of what this field has to offer,” Hawkins said. “Astronomy deals so much with science and math, and I know taking AP physics and AP calculus will help me with astronomy moving forward.”

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