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Bergan ’15 named Jefferson Prize winner

  • Always wanted to be a scientist
    Always wanted to be a scientist  Will Bergan ’15 got hooked on physics in middle school. He’s done research at two of the world’s premier high-energy physics installations and is the recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy, William & Mary’s top honor for science and mathematics undergraduates.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Will Bergan always wanted to be a scientist. One day when he was in middle school, he decided he should begin the weighty deliberations necessary for choosing a particular scientific discipline.

“I went to the library,” he said. “I was going to check out a bunch of books on science. One on physics, chemistry—just going down the line, you know. All the sciences.”

It seemed to be a good plan, but it so happened that the first book he picked up was on physics.

“It was all about quantum mechanics and black holes,” Bergan said. “It was very interesting. I decided: OK, the search is done.”

He only checked out that one volume. That book was compelling enough to ensnare the young proto-scientist in the strange-but-true (until conclusively demonstrated otherwise) world of physics. As a physicist, Bergan thought, he would join a group of men and women who have been striving to figure out the perplexities of physical existence.

“It’s all very strange,” he says even now. “There’s a lot of stuff in the universe that doesn’t work in ways that we expect. ”

Bergan ’15 is a math and physics double major from Springfield, Virginia. He is the 2015 recipient of William & Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. Endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the award recognizes excellence in the sciences and mathematics and commemorates Jefferson’s relationship with Professor William Small. The namesake of the William Small Physical Laboratory, Prof. Small was Jefferson’s science and mathematics tutor at William & Mary. The Jefferson Prize is one of the awards traditionally bestowed at Charter Day, which commemorates the founding of the institution in 1693.

He began doing research in physics his freshman year, mentored by Jeffrey Nelson, associate professor of physics. Nelson became his advisor and undergraduate research mentor. Bergan wasted no time getting his feet wet in a demanding curriculum.

“He bypassed all of our freshman coursework, started out with the sophomores, and thrived in his classes while maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA, which is nearly impossible at W&M,” Nelson wrote in a letter nominating Bergan for the Jefferson prize. Nelson’s letter noted that Bergan impressed members of the Department of Physics in a number of ways.

“Will approached me to work on an experimental particle physics project his third week of classes. When he came to talk to me, he was only the second undergrad I had seen with Ubuntu Linux as the only operating system on his laptop,” Nelson wrote. “After a quick conversation, I jumped at the chance to take him into my group.”

Bergan’s freshman research projects included analyzing data from neutrino experiments at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Il. “He professionally presented his work at a collaboration meeting in front of my colleagues,” Nelson said. “ I was gratified when he was mistaken for a Ph.D. student, when he was truly a freshman.”

He spent summers at two of the world’s premier physics facilities. In 2013, Bergan did an internship at Fermilab, working on detector design in the electrical engineering department. Bergan was barely back from his Fermilab internship when he received word that he had been accepted to an internship at CERN. He and Rachel Hyneman made up the William & Mary contingent, two of only 15 U.S. undergraduates selected for a summer internship at the Swiss facility where the Higgs boson was discovered.

In addition to his exemplary academic record and considerable contributions at some of the world’s most advanced physics experiments, Bergan has also an impressive record when it comes to service and volunteerism. Patricia Vahle, associate professor of physics, points out in a letter that Bergan served as scientific secretary for the International Workshop on Neutrino Factories, Beta Beams and Superbeams (NUFACT) hosted at William & Mary in 2012. Vahle’s letter also notes Bergan’s participation in Physics Fest, the department’s annual open house, in which the Department of Physics opens its labs for tours, lectures and hands-on physics demonstrations.

“The event is largely organized by undergraduate students, and Mr. Bergan has been one of the key organizers every year,” Vahle wrote. “Last year he served as the treasurer for the event; this year he is the lead organizer.”

Vahle also cited Bergan’s participation in the department’s outreach programs at local schools, offering physics demonstation/explanation presentations to members of a demographic that might be considering careers in science. He also was active in the William & Mary chapter of the Society of Physics Students, including serving a term as president.

Bergan wants to continue his studies of high-energy physics. He has applied for admission to the graduate programs at some of the world’s top universities.

“After graduation, William intends to continue his studies in experimental particle physics,” wrote Gene Tracy, Chancellor Professor of Physics.

“Our brightest students are regularly admitted to leading graduate programs in both Physics and Astronomy, and William is certainly one of our brightest students. In the long term, given his combination of motivation, creativity, intelligence, and leadership skills, the Physics faculty have high hopes that William will become a leading academic in the field.