FHS senior latest local student to take part in prestigious Summer Science Program

Ethan Nguyen spent his summer tracking near-earth asteroid

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The Summer Science Program has drawn the participation of at least two other Farmington students in recent years.
  • It offers select students the opportunity to perform hands-on, collaborative experimental research while exposing them to experienced researchers and prominent guest lecturers.
  • The program was operated on a virtual basis again this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

FARMINGTON — When Farmington High School senior Ethan Nguyen decided to apply for the Summer Science Program he didn't have to look far for inspiration.

The six-decade-old nonprofit academic endeavor drew the participation of at least two other Farmington students in recent years — Bryan Hilton last year and Nguyen's sister in 2018.

The Summer Science Program offers select students the opportunity to perform hands-on, collaborative experimental research while exposing them to experienced researchers and prominent guest lecturers, including Nobel laureates. Ithas partnered with some of the nation's top colleges and universities.

Ethan Nguyen recently completed his five-week stint with the program during which he worked on a team with two other students to track and calculate the path of a near-earth asteroid, 2003UD8.

Nguyen's team helped operate a research-grade telescope to track the asteroid. He said there are six orbital elements that define the position of an asteroid, and Nguyen and his teammates used coded math equations to determine what those orbital elements were.

For the second summer in a row, the entire program — which usually is conducted on a residential basis at a partner school, such as New Mexico Tech — was operated virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Ethan Nguyen

"I think it would have been easier in person, but our professors and teaching assistants did a good job of getting to meet new people," Nguyen said of the experience.

The FHS senior described the program as intense, explaining that the days were long and demanding. A typical day started at 9 a.m. and featured several learning blocks that included lectures by astronomy or math/physics professors. It was during those sessions that Nguyen and his fellow participants were taught computer coding, something he said he had no experience with before the program.

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Students got a break from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., then a three-hour evening session began each day. During that time period, Nguyen worked with his teammates on the asteroid project, often processing images of the object.

Despite being exposed to them only a virtual basis, Nguyen said he grew close to his teammates, who were from California and Connecticut, and has remained in contact with them after completion of the program. He and his teammates relaxed from the academic rigors of the program by engaging in regular online games with another team, and that led him to develop relationships with those students, as well, he said.

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There was also the chance to see what his fellow participants were like outside of the classroom when a virtual talent show was held one day, he said. Nguyen chose to show off his musical skills — he began playing acoustic guitar recently — while other students opted to display their dance moves or piano-playing abilities.

Competition for a spot in the program is fierce. Nguyen said 1,800 students applied this year, and a press release from the organization said only 35 were accepted. The program was launched in 1959 and is affiliated with such institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.

Nguyen said perhaps the most valuable aspect of the program for him was learning how to code. He said he hadn't taken any computer science classes before this summer, and he is sure the experience he gained will serve him well down the line, although he has not settled on a precise academic or career path yet.

After graduating in May, Nguyen said he will pursue bachelor's and advanced degrees in math, physics and/or business before beginning his career, perhaps as an engineer. With the massive growth in the private industry side of space exploration in recent years, Nguyen acknowledged there likely would be many job opportunities available to him in that sector in the years ahead.

But he said he is leaning toward a more traditional path. Both his parents worked for NASA, and Nguyen said that agency is his most likely landing spot someday.

"I always looked up to them ever since I was young," he said.

For more information about the Summer Science Program, visit summerscience.org.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.