“I had music on one side going on all the time and intense academics on the other, and not a lot of sleep ever. Coming to WSU, I was trying to find some way to make everything kind of pull together.”
Justin Niedermeyer has been curious about the world around him for as long as he can remember. Inspiration first struck the Washington State University senior when he was a little boy watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation with his parents. As he gazed in wonder at all the technology and science aboard the famed U.S.S. Enterprise, he knew, instantly: He was going to be a scientist someday.
Fast forward a couple decades, and Niedermeyer is well on his way to realizing his childhood dream. He’s set to graduate summa cum laude from WSU on May 7 with a bachelor of science degree in physics and a minor in mathematics, bachelor of arts degrees in music and German for the professions, and an Honors College certificate.
Then, in September, with the help of a Fulbright grant, Niedermeyer will move to Heidelberg, Germany, where he’ll spend 10 months conducting research in a renowned physics lab at Heidelberg University while simultaneously completing coursework for a master’s in physics. After that, he’ll pursue a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a veritable hotbed of atomic, molecular, and optical physics research.
It’s a future that would make Capt. Jean-Luc Picard proud.
“Of all the schools I looked at, WSU was the most willing to work with me to make that happen.”
Physics. Music. German.
It’s not exactly a common combination of majors, but Niedermeyer, 23, has always had a unique set of interests and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Originally from the small town of Milton, Wash. (about 40 minutes south of Seattle), Niedermeyer transferred to nearby Sumner High School in 10th grade so he could participate in the school’s International Baccalaureate program.
“Transferring into Sumner and going through the IB program not only gave me the skills I needed for college, but it also gave me the bug for wanting to do so many different things,” he says.
In high school, Niedermeyer studied chemistry and biology and realized he loved the physics underlying both disciplines. He also sang in choirs, something he’d done since second grade, performed in community and professional musicals and operas, composed his own music, and played percussion in the marching band. He taught himself basic German through online classes.
“I had music on one side going on all the time and intense academics on the other, and not a lot of sleep ever,” Niedermeyer says, chuckling. “Coming to WSU, I was trying to find some way to make everything kind of pull together.”
When he began looking at colleges in 2011, Niedermeyer knew he wanted to continue studying science and music. At the time, he intended to pursue astrophysics and either vocal or percussion performance. But he realized it would be a challenge to make a class schedule work around both majors.
“Of all the schools I looked at, WSU was the most willing to work with me to make that happen,” he says.
Niedermeyer utilized the Honors College to help him get organized and gain a more interdisciplinary understanding of his majors.
“In the Honors College, the advising is fantastic,” he says. “They help you figure out your general Honors requirements, and they’ll also help you work with different faculty members and different classes to make sure all your other requirements are met, especially for people who are pursuing multiple majors. The coursework and classes are such that you’re working with students from various fields and you can see things in different ways.”
Niedermeyer took 16-18 credits almost every semester while also participating in WSU Opera Workshops, various choirs, and the WSU Physics and Astronomy Club. He also served as a leader in the government of Waller Hall, where he lived for 4 years. As if that weren’t enough, in 2013, he also began conducting research in the laboratory of Peter Engels, a professor of physics who specializes in Bose-Einstein Condensates and the study of ultracold atoms.
“The opportunities and support that faculty, staff, friends, and fellow students have given me all along the way have made this possible, and I don’t think I’d be able to do it anywhere else but at WSU.”
When we think of atoms, we typically think of them like billiard balls bouncing very rapidly throughout our physical environment. However, when you cool atoms to extremely cold temperatures, they start behaving differently. Physicists Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein first developed this theory in 1924-1925. Seventy years later, in 1995, Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman at the University of Colorado, Boulder JILA lab were the first to figure out how to cool atoms to billionths of a degree above absolute zero so Bose and Einstein’s theory could be observed. Shortly after, Wolfgang Ketterle at MIT accomplished the same thing. All three physicists won Nobel Prizes for their work in 2001.
Absolute zero is a theoretical concept where all motion stops because there’s no heat or energy to create motion. If we were to measure temperatures like distance, and absolute zero was in Pullman, then room temperature would be in Boston. The temperatures of these cooled down atoms would be equal to the width of a pencil right next to Pullman. We’re talking about extreme cold.
When atoms are this cold, they start to behave in a more uniform wave-like pattern that’s easier for researchers to observe. Bose-Einstein Condensation (BEC), a physical phenomena named for the two physicists who developed the theory, suggests that when these atoms start acting like waves, they become like one large super-particle. In this state, researchers can manipulate the atoms using lasers and magnets to model different quantum mechanical systems. In the future, these observations could lead to high-impact applications in fields such as medical technology and computing, for example.
This is where Niedermeyer comes in. For the last three years, he has assisted Engels and his graduate students with research on ultracold atoms and Bose-Einstein Condensates. Engels used to work as a post-doc in Cornell’s lab at JILA. The only undergraduate student in Engels’ lab, Niedermeyer has helped build the lab’s second-generation machine used to capture the atoms, manipulate them, and observe them. In the process, he’s learned about different research processes and been exposed to the worldwide network of physicists studying the same concepts under the umbrella of atomic, molecular, and optical physics.
With Engels’ guidance, Niedermeyer was awarded an internship in 2014 to assist with ultracold atom research for Selim Jochim’s group at Heidelberg University. Niedermeyer spent three months in Germany doing research, working on his German, and even winning the World Cup soccer pool the German grad students had put together.
When he returned to WSU in fall 2014, Niedermeyer changed his then German minor into a full-blown major, German for the Professions, to help him better communicate with his fellow physicists in Germany. He applied what he’d learned in Germany to his work in Engels’ lab and in 2015 was awarded the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious national undergraduate science award in the country.
Even though he’s accomplished and brilliant, Niedermeyer always directs the spotlight and praise to his advisors, mentors, and professors at WSU.
“The opportunities and support that faculty, staff, friends, and fellow students have given me all along the way have made this possible, and I don’t think I’d be able to do it anywhere else but at WSU,” he says.
“The idea of improving our energy efficiency and coming up with medical sensors that could revolutionize the way things are done, I think, is a way for me to pay back what others have done for me.”
Ultracold atomic research, while still in relatively early stages now, has potential for making a huge impact in a variety of fields. Niedermeyer and his fellow physicists hope to provide their research findings to industry leaders and engineers who can use them to vastly improve things like computing speed and technology, energy transmission from power plants to homes, geological measurements, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
For Niedermeyer, the desire to improve technology is personal. At age 4, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He began using a glucose meter to test his blood sugar and had to mix three or four different types of insulin in order to make sure they worked.
“My first glucose meter would send a small beam of light onto a paper strip with a drop of my blood on it. Then it would reflect back in and measure how much concentration of sugar was in my blood,”Niedermeyer says. That was my first little spark of inspiration for wanting to be involved with something that uses light.”
Niedermeyer also had to quickly learn how to understand math and recognize how numbers change over time in order to take care of himself. Now, 20 years later, he wears a small insulin pump clipped onto his left pants pocket that closely regulates his blood sugar. He feels fortunate that diabetes has never hindered him or stood in the way of anything he’s wanted to do in life.
“Seeing how all of this technology and improvement came from people who did research at fundamental levels and then turned it into something that can be sold to consumers really influenced me to find a field where I could one day be a part of research that could help other people,” Niedermeyer says. “The idea of improving our energy efficiency and coming up with medical sensors that could revolutionize the way things are done, I think, is a way for me to pay back what others have done for me.”
“It may sound very hokey, but seeing how that all comes together is like seeing the universe as not only a physical construct, but almost as a musical construct. It’s something I think you need creativity for, and at WSU, the faculty and advisors understand that, and they want to foster all that coming together.”
At first glance, physics, music, and German might seem like three hugely different subjects with very little crossover. Over the last five years at WSU, Niedermeyer has discovered that’s not necessarily the case. Many of his physics professors are musicians, and his physics advisor, Michael Allen, attends many of the WSU Opera Workshop and Madrigal/Chamber Singers performances, in which Niedermeyer sings baritone.
“He might know more about opera than I do,” Niedermeyer says, laughing.
His music theory professor, Ryan Hare, is interested in physics and composes some pieces using physical processes as inspiration, something Niedermeyer has also tried himself. There’s even a jazz ensemble of faculty members from the physics and music departments that plays for late-night astronomy events at Jewett Observatory on WSU’s Pullman campus.
“There’s a lot of mutual understanding between the departments, and while these areas might seem different, when you get down to it, they’re very, very similar,” Niedermeyer says.
“And it may sound very hokey, but seeing how that all comes together is like seeing the universe as not only a physical construct, but almost as a musical construct. It’s something I think you need creativity for, and at WSU, the faculty and advisors understand that, and they want to foster all that coming together.”
Being both a scientist and a musician, Niedermeyer says many of the traits required to succeed in either activity are similar, including intuition, creative problem solving, and figuring out how everything fits together.
“Where German intersects with both of these is there are just so many concepts in both physics and music that are in German. In music, there’s many wonderful German pieces for vocalists, and understanding German really helps me get into the poetry and the emotion of those pieces,” he says. “For the longest time, the language of physics was German. My specific field that I study, ultracold atoms, really got going because of an article that Einstein published in a German physics journal. Being able to read it in the original German was a very enlightening experience.”
“There was a really fantastic class that freshman physics majors have to take where the professors all come through and show their research. I saw there were a lot of things going on other than astrophysics. There were opportunities to get hands-on experience and really see results.”
When Niedermeyer arrived at WSU, he thought he would study music and astrophysics. He had never taken a physics class before, so he didn’t yet know the full breadth of the field.
In his Physics 188 seminar class, all of the physics professors cycled through the class, presenting their research. Peter Engels, who would later become Niedermeyer’s mentor, spoke about his research in Bose-Enstein Condensates. Later, Niedermeyer attended a lecture given by Nobel Laureate Eric Cornell, the physicist who works at CU Boulder, Niedermeyer’s future graduate school. He spoke about his groundbreaking research in ultracold atoms and the potential real-world impacts.
Like every other one of his pursuits, Niedermeyer went after his physics education with everything he had.
Cornell’s remarks captivated Niedermeyer. His one hang-up about astrophysics and astronomy was that it was difficult to conduct research in a lab. Ultracold atom research involved hands-on techniques, creative uses of physics processes, and utilized quantum physics, which is what got Niedermeyer interested in physics in the first place. All of this could be pursued in a lab, something he really wanted to do. After that lecture, Niedermeyer decided to pursue a general physics degree at WSU, hoping to one day get involved in the ultracold atom research being done on campus.
Like every other one of his pursuits, Niedermeyer went after his physics education with everything he had. If there’s one thing to know about Justin Niedermeyer, it’s that he never gives less than 100 percent.
“Having that diverse academic atmosphere and really close fantastic friendships really drove me to try and do my best.”
Many of Niedermeyer’s best memories of WSU stem from his time living in Waller Hall on the south side of campus. Closed at the end of the spring semester in 2015, Waller was a male-only residence hall that had housed Niedermeyer’s grandfather, uncle, and brother when they attended the University.
“It’s where I made my first social connections, and there was just something very special about the hall,” he says.
“It’s where everything really started for me here at WSU… in that wonderful place.”
Niedermeyer was the only physics major in Waller, so he was exposed to students who studied everything from poetry to engineering. Following in his older brother Brenden’s footsteps, Niedermeyer quickly got involved in the hall government, serving as secretary, vice president, president, and the Duke of Windsor, an honorary alumni relations position created decades ago when the hall first opened.
“Having that diverse academic atmosphere and really close fantastic friendships really drove me to try and do my best,” he says.
He and his Waller hallmates participated in all kinds of activities on campus, including peer tutoring, fencing club, and attending Cougar football games. Niedermeyer himself went to almost every home football game during his 5 years at WSU. Under his leadership as president in 2014, Waller Hall was named the “Most Collaborative Student Organization” at WSU.
Niedermeyer also met his girlfriend, Shaun Bush, through a mutual friend from Waller Hall.
Now that the hall is closed, Niedermeyer and other alumni are working to have the street in front of the hall renamed Waller Way.
“It’s where everything really started for me here at WSU… in that wonderful place,” he says.
“After I earn my doctorate in physics, I hope to work in a laboratory—maybe eventually have my own laboratory—studying these ultracold systems and seeing how the research we do could be applied to something that could really make a difference.”
In just a few days, Niedermeyer will put on his cap and gown, his Honors College medal, his Top 10 Senior stole, a Global Coug stole, an outstanding senior physics department medal, a German area outstanding senior medal, crimson and gray university honors cords, and pink and blue Phi Beta Kappa cords. Always humble, he’s a little embarrassed by all the regalia.
He’ll walk across the stage in Beasley Coliseum and shake hands with interim president Dan Bernardo. He’ll celebrate with his parents, Jeanne and Ken, his brother Brenden, and other extended family members. Soon after, he’ll head home to Milton for a few months before moving to Heidelberg in September to begin the next phase of his academic career.
Niedermeyer is excited to see the German friends he met during his internship at Heidelberg University in 2014 and anxious to build new relationships. Part of his Fulbright grant requirement is to be a cultural ambassador and connect with the people in his host city. Being a music aficionado, Niedermeyer intends to do just that by joining a local choir.
Farther into the future, Niedermeyer will aspire to become a leading researcher in the field of atomic, molecular, and optical physics. Based on his accomplishments to date, that future looks bright—indeed, as bright as an atom-cooling laser beam.