Greg Richards, Ph.D. in Physics

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Gregory T. Richards applied to Georgia Tech for graduate school because of Tech’s academic reputation. But what sealed the decision was Tech’s proximity to his hometown – Birmingham, Alabama. “Having the ability to head home any weekend to visit friends or family provided a certain comfort in the knowledge that I could get away for a few days if necessary,” Greg says.

After completing his B.S. in Physics at Birmingham Southern College, in Alabama, Greg did not immediately go to graduate school. “I took about three years off from academics before coming to Tech,” he says.

“In the year prior to starting my graduate studies, I worked as a pharmacy technician at a Walgreens Pharmacy,” Greg recalls. “That job proved to be educational, despite not having much to do with physics. It gave me perspective of what life is like working outside of academics.”

Greg is graduating with a Ph.D. in Physics. His next stop is a postdoctoral stint at the University of Delaware.

What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?

I did not have specific expectations when I entered graduate school, except that the first-year coursework at Tech would be challenging. That was an accurate prediction.

Probably the most important thing I learned was the general process of doing science. I had excellent guidance from my thesis advisor and from other members of the VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) Collaboration, who reviewed my work.

Which professor(s) or class(es) made a big impact on you?

My Ph.D. supervisor, Professor A. Nepomuk Otte, was a brand-new faculty member when I became the first member of his research group. He funded my research assistantship for many semesters. In addition, he funded my attendance to a few conferences and meetings overseas. This experience was extra-special for me, because before graduate school, I had never been on an airplane.  Through overseas travel, I was able to network with many scientists in my subfield from all over the world.  Thanks to my Ph.D. supervisor, I can confirm that spending time abroad immensely broadens one's horizons.

Professor Sven Simon taught one of my elective courses, EAS 8803 Advanced Space Physics. He was the clearest and most effective lecturer I had at Georgia Tech, which is saying something given that the quality of teaching at Tech, in my experience, is generally high.

What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?

The first ever detection of a gravitational wave was announced in February 2016, during my fifth year at Tech. It was a particularly exciting time for the School of Physics, because some members of the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics belong to the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, the worldwide group of scientists responsible for the detection. The discovery prompted an on-campus watch party for the announcement, in addition to several interesting talks on campus by Georgia Tech faculty. We also had an off-campus party one night that week in celebration.  

What was the most valuable outcome of your participation in experiential learning activities?

My graduate research focused on gamma-ray astrophysics from the experimental and observational side. In 2012, I joined the VERITAS Collaboration, which comprises scientists who work on the VERITAS array of four very-high-energy gamma-ray telescopes located in southern Arizona.

One of the collaboration requirements is traveling to Arizona at least once a year to take data from sunset to sunrise for about two weeks. These observing shifts are staffed by three or so collaboration members, who spend a good deal of quality time together in the telescope control room. During my observing shifts, I learned how to properly operate the array. In addition, I learned a tremendous amount about all facets of our brand of science from the senior members of the collaboration.

What advice would you give to incoming graduate students at Georgia Tech?

  • Don't bite off more than you can chew.
  • Don't be afraid to take advantage of the mental health support offered by Tech; don't be afraid to complain if you think the mental health support you’re getting is not enough.
  • When selecting a research advisor, have an honest conversation about their expectations for the number of hours they want you putting in per week; look at other research groups if you don't think you can meet those expectations while taking care to stay mentally and physically healthy.
  • Prepare a few humorous remarks to deliver during conference talks; humor helps you stand out.

Where are you headed after graduation?

I have accepted an offer from the University of Delaware for a postdoctoral research position to continue working in gamma-ray astrophysics.


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