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Chico State

Curiosity Has Set Double Physics Major On Successful Path

Student Justin Craven wearing a black jacket.
(Jason Halley / University Photographer)

In the coming weeks, we will be celebrating the accomplishments and stories behind 2024’s Lt. Rawlins Merit Scholarship Recipients. The award—one of the largest and most prestigious at Chico State—celebrates scholarship, extracurricular activities, and outstanding academic, and professional accomplishments.

By the time Justin Craven arrived at Chico State, he had already picked a major: electrical engineering. The Pleasanton native already had an interest, and aptitude, for electronics. 

“I liked the idea of electricity and how so many day-to-day things function on it,” he said. “For example, most people don’t have a clue what’s going on underneath their cell phone screen—the more I dove into it, the more I got interested in it.” 

In his second year, Craven took a physics class and became more interested in that field as well—and he was good at it. Physics professors Hyewon and Joe Pechkis took notice and encouraged Craven to consider switching majors to physics. It was a successful pitch—Craven began doing research with Hyewon in the University’s ultracold atom laboratory and added a physics major. The double major expects to graduate in spring 2025. 

Craven’s involvement with physics has blossomed. He has worked as an Instructional Student Assistant for the Physics Department since fall 2021, he received the Arloe Anania-Murray Physics Scholarship for 2022, last summer he received the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Award—earning a summer internship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland—and next month, Craven will be honored as a recipient of the 42nd annual Lt. Merton Rawlins Merit Award.  

Outside of the classroom he’s a decathlete on the men’s track and field team. As a sophomore last year, Craven placed fourth at the California Collegiate Athletic Association Championships.  

What does this scholarship mean to you and what will it allow you to accomplish? 

It means I’m making progress and I’m doing the right things. Financially, it’s a huge help, as well, because it reduces so much strain. I don’t have time to have a job other than being a learning assistant, which is just a couple of hours a week, between athletics and school. So having that financial support to keep me going is a huge help to me. I’m looking towards grad school for physics and the award is a huge boost for that as well, in terms of applications and looking where I want to go. It’s going to open a lot of doors a bit more with this recognition.  

Which programs or people have made a difference in your educational journey? 

Hyewon and Joe Pechkis both really encouraged me to get into physics, and I’m really thankful for that. They’ve been incredibly supportive, both in the classroom and in the research lab. I’ve done research with both of them, and it’s been a really cool experience to be shown the horizons in the world of physics that I might be stepping into. They’re incredible with their students and are really supportive and helpful. They’re always available to answer questions or chat. They’ve definitely provided a lot of inspiration for me to continue and keep moving forward. I’m honored to have been recognized by them. 

What opportunities to gain hands-on working experience have you received at Chico State? 

Working in the lab and as a learning assistant have been great experiences. In terms of in the classroom, I’ve learned how to communicate with students better and to help them. I’ve always had roommates who have asked me to tutor them or help with homework. It’s been interesting to learn how to instruct in a way that allows them to figure things out on their own and to problem-solve instead of regurgitating something out of a book. In the research lab, I’ve picked up so many research-specific skills. I was working with everything from machining to electrical engineering and using microcontrollers to learning how to use lasers and optics. I’ve been introduced to the world of physics where you’re expected to publish papers and to go to conferences. There have been a lot of opportunities to learn what it means to be a physicist and expand these boundaries that you don’t get from just studying in class. In class, you’ll learn the theoretical skills, you learn how to do the math, how to start to think critically about these things. But once you get into a real lab situation, learning to apply those skills with all of the hardware and equipment and all of the things that go wrong—because there are so many things that will go wrong in a lab—those are the real skills that I feel I’ve picked up. 

What’s something not in your nomination form that would be fun to know about you? 

I really like crosswords a lot. I like trivia a lot, like Jeopardy, that’s my jam. I’m also really into movies and a little bit of photography. I listen to music maybe seven hours a day, I constantly have headphones in, which is a lot, but it keeps me moving through my day.