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Nov 01
STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Robert McKay

Robert McKay.jpgFourth-year Honors student and STEM EE Scholar Robert McKay recalls a Civil War legend about generals and their iconic beards. Apparently, the generals urged soldiers to enlist by insisting that the war would be over by the time they had to shave. In saying this, they assumed they would only be growing their facial hair for a few months at most. The generals—as well as soldiers who followed suit—refused to go back on their word and therefore spent four years without a single shave. McKay took inspiration from this story and decided to begin his own journey of beardedness when he arrived at OSU as a freshman. Of course, McKay's path to clean-shaven greatness involves getting a degree rather than fighting in one of the bloodiest wars of American history. He notes that looking in the mirror each morning provides him with a reminder of how far he has come toward reaching his goal of graduation. Pretty soon, he will be able to shave—that is, if the look hasn't grown on him (pun absolutely intended).

McKay is from Cortland, Ohio and is an avid fan of the outdoors. He has a hobby for every variation of Ohio's unpredictable weather: hiking, scuba diving, camping, snowboarding, etc. He hopes to become involved with the Boy Scouts of American again soon, noting that it was a character-shaping experience that also gave him opportunities to go on some memorable camping adventures. If there was a soundtrack playing in the background of his outdoor undertakings, it would probably include classic rock by bands such as Queen, Kansas, Rolling Stones, and The Who.

In fact, Queen was part of McKay's inspiration for becoming a physics major. Sure, maybe not all of us hear "Under Pressure" and immediately think about force divided by area, but there is actually a logical reason for McKay's association between his field of study and one of his favorite bands. Queen's guitarist, Brian May, has an astrophysics degree and wrote a book called Bang!: The Complete History of the Universe, which McKay read several years ago. Star Trek sparked further interest in astrophysics; though many of the concepts are science fiction, there are plenty of strange and fascinating things in real-life space to learn about. If McKay could invent any class, it would be Klingon as a foreign language course. "I know the basics, but I think it would be cool to go more in depth," he says. "The history surrounding the formation of the language is also fascinating; it was developed by an actual linguist for the Star Trek movies."

McKay is a member of Sigma Phi Sigma (a physics honorary) and the Chess Club. He is also the current president of the Society of Physics Students (SPS), and has already made a lasting impact by putting refrigerators in the physics lounge. Additionally, he is planning this year's trip to a national lab. As much as he values improving the lives of his fellow physics students, McKay is very focused on improving the lives of aspiring scientists in the community. During his presidency, he intends to get SPS involved with more outreach. For example, SPS has partnered with a group called Scientific Thinkers, which provides interactive science lessons at Innis Elementary School. SPS members are also planning to volunteer at the physics department's annual Science Olympiad. Finally, they have been helping out with an emerging organization called Polaris, which provides mentorship and professional opportunities to undergraduate female, minority, and transfer students in physics. A unique attribute of Polaris is that it involves both the graduate and undergraduate community.

Speaking of mentorship and professional opportunities, McKay is grateful for his involvement in both Honors and STEM EE Scholars. He says the camaraderie among fellow H&S students has been one of the most influential aspects of the program, and he highly recommends that new H&S students make an effort to get to know each other and form study groups. "It never ceases to amaze me what amazing tasks my fellow colleagues accomplish," he says. Being part of Scholars also gave McKay the chance to kick off freshman year with some of his favorite things: camping and white water rafting with faculty and fellow STEM students. While the weekend trip to West Virginia remains one of the most memorable Scholars events, he also enjoys events that are not quite as adrenaline-filled, such as the Ted Talks and Tea series, where students watch videos of Ted Talks while enjoying a snack of cookies and steaming hot tea.

Like so many H&S students, McKay is passionate about undergraduate research. He works with Professor Nandini Trivedi in the physics department, studying the transport in type II Weyl semimetals. He explains, "Transport is the movement of electrons subjected to a thermal gradient or electric field.  A type II Weyl semimetal is bulk substance with emergent properties, such as a linear energy dispersion of its electrons, which is similar to light." Specifically, he is examining the effects of Berry curvature on transport. He elaborates that Berry curvature influences the path of electrons in momentum space and acts as a magnetic field. For McKay, the best part about the project is the feeling of making a discovery for the first time. "To gain an understanding on an entirely brand new niche topic is one of the most exciting feelings in research," he says. "To be able to contribute something to collective human knowledge, no matter how small, is rewarding."

McKay plans to stick with his current research area, condensed matter theory, when he goes on to graduate school. He will work toward a postdoctoral position and ultimately toward professorship. But before he fully immerses himself into the graduate life of research labs and journal articles, there is something he needs to cross off his bucket list. He and his housemates have been talking for several years about taking a road trip across the country and plan to make this hypothetical a reality after graduation before they disperse and move on to exciting—but likely very busy—futures. Though a post-graduation road trip with best friends is generally the opposite of predictable, McKay has one absolute, nonnegotiable requirement for the journey. "There's this black cherry Stewart's pop that we all enjoy, and we've painted a scene in our heads of sharing a couple of these sodas around a campfire in the middle of nowhere as the night sky smiles down on us," he says. "Our goal is to make that scene a reality."

In the meantime, McKay will continue his academics, extracurricular involvement, and research. Perhaps, through the power of a laboratory and the scientific method, he will discover new properties that have not yet been researched by colleagues in the field.

In other words, one could say he will boldly go where no researcher has gone before. ​

By Christina Szuch, Honors & Scholars Media Team Member