When he began at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Matthew Reichl wanted nothing more than a future as a jazz pianist.
Reichl was on track to meet his goal – he was already performing with professional musicians and learning Houston’s music scene from the inside – when something happened his junior year to change his career path.
“I took a physics course my junior year, and I had a really excellent teacher. I guess I started playing with the idea of doing something else, and it just kind of caught on,” he said. “I took another physics course after that, and I just kind of fell in love with the subject.”
The change in focus paid off as Reichl, a junior physics and mathematics double major with the University of Houston’s Honors College, was named one of the top science students in the U.S. as a 2010 recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.
The scholarship program, established by the U.S. Congress in 1986 in honor of former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, is designed to provide a continuing source of highly qualified mathematicians and engineers by awarding scholarships to college students pursuing careers in those fields. It is awarded to 300 college sophomores and juniors each year, and is considered the most prestigious award for an undergraduate student of the sciences.
“I’m very happy about it,” Reichl said of the award. “It makes life a lot easier as I start applying for graduate school. I get to stress out a little less.”
The award also validates his decision to make the switch from performing in jazz clubs to conducting research in a physics laboratory – a decision Reichl describes as surprisingly easy.
“It might sound strange that I would switch from an art that was obviously creative to something very hard science,” he said. “Interestingly enough, what really excited me about it was the creativity involved in solving the problems and in analyzing the problems.”
When it came time to choose a college, Reichl gave up his plans to attend music school, and began to focus on finding a place relatively close to his home in the Katy area, and one that had a good physics program. He applied to two places – the University of Houston and the University of Texas. The Honors College sold him on UH.
“I was invited to an orientation, and I was just really impressed with the liberal arts aspect of what is going on here,” he said. “I wanted to have a good balance between the sciences and the liberal arts and I thought The Honors College was a good place to go.”
The small class sizes, the individual attention, and the quality of the courses have convinced him he made the right move.
“The physics program here is really small, and that just has benefits all over the place,” he said. “I have a class with four students – that is quite nice.”
The personal attention he has received at UH has led to a number of opportunities, including the chance to do research as an undergraduate.
“I was found out. I wasn’t even going to get involved in research until later on, and a professor just noticed me, and kind of took care of things for me,” Reichl said. “He really motivated me to get involved in research. He contacted some professors for me, which I thought was really pretty amazing.”
The summer after his freshman year, Reichl was selected to do research in Kevin Bassler’s laboratory, doing field work in statistical mechanics. He has continued his work in that lab.
The experience has taught him to love physics even more.
“As soon as I started doing research, I saw how creative it can be,” Reichl said, adding that he hopes to continue doing research through graduate school. Ultimately, he hopes to do research and teach at the university level.
While he enjoys the creativity involved in physics, Reichl still enjoys other creative outlets. He continues to perform around Houston, playing with a jazz band every Monday night at a bar in Montrose.
Living on campus has made it possible for him to fit so much into his schedule, while still having the traditional college experience.
“I’m happy that I have kept a good balance,” Reichl said. “I have studied hard, and spent a lot of time with it, but I have also had a lot of fun times … I have gotten to play music and do a lot of things outside of pure academics. I love having the opportunity to go to the games and stuff.”
After winning the scholarship, Reichl said he plans to move out of the dorms and into an apartment for his senior year. But he will still stay close to campus to take advantage of all of the opportunities available for him there.
“I like having the chance to stay after class, and hang out with friends,” he said. “I like studying with other people. And also, I do research during the school year, and it helps to be able to stay at the lab whenever I want.”
Wherever he ends up, Reichl said he will look back fondly on his time at UH.
“It is a great school,” he said. “I think it is a completely underrated university.”