Naperville physics whiz wins prestigious fellowships
In his 30-year teaching career, Nicholas DiGiovanni says he's had plenty of students who got better grades than Charles Tschirhart, but few, if any, were as thoughtful and intelligent.
"He thinks of things -- and thinks through things -- in a different way than most kids do," said DiGiovanni, a biology teacher at Naperville Central High School. "He's a deep thinker, and he can really problem-solve. He's an amazing kid."
Charles, a Naperville resident studying chemistry and applied physics at the California Institute of Technology, recently was announced the winner of a prestigious Hertz Foundation fellowship. The fellowship pays for up to five years of grad school for students pursuing science in the public good.
The 22-year-old also earned a Fulbright Scholarship -- which will fund a year of study on atomic manipulation at the University of Nottingham in England -- along with a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation and a scholarships from the Barry Goldwater Foundation.
Despite all his successes, Charles makes it a point to say he's had his share of failures.
"I have failed at a ton of things," he said. "I had rejected applications. I messed up interviews. All kinds of things. It doesn't affect my mental state, but I definitely work harder because of it."
Charles has a pending patent application for a technique that uses advanced nanotechnology to perform sensitive measurements on single cells, but he's especially excited about the research he's doing for his senior thesis.
"There is a set of equations for describing how fluids work that have been around for a century," he said. "But when you get to scales so small, liquids that are comprised of molecules, those old equations don't work."
The practical applications of that study can range from analyzing the flow of petroleum through porous rocks to the behavior of lubricants on computer hard drives, explains Charles, who plans to get a Ph.D. in experimental condensed matter physics from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Sandra Troian, Charles' adviser and a professor of applied physics at Caltech, said he's one of the most curious students she's ever met. When she jokingly mentioned that it would be great to find a way to resuscitate an old, broken ellipsometer, Charles took on the challenge.
"Charles decides, unbeknown to me, to pull it apart and figures out what's wrong," she said of the instrument used to measure the thickness of thin films. "So he starts making calls, but there aren't many people in the U.S. who actually knew how to work it or fix it. He kept at it and kept at it until he found someone who is retired in New Jersey and who was able to fix it in the garage. The machine came back five months later in nice, pristine condition. I thought that was just great."
Charles is curious about many subjects -- not just science. "He's crazy about Wikipedia," Troian said. "I look forward to coming to work and seeing him every day. He always has something fun to tell you. He's a cool person to have around."
A love for science runs in Charles' family. His mother, Jacalyn Green, is a biochemistry professor at Midwestern University in Downers Grove; his father, Robert Tschirhart, is a physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia. The exception is Charles' older sister, Erin, who works as a corporate recruiter for a credit company.
Charles was always curious and persistent, traits that sometimes led to unexpected consequences, his mother said.
"Once when he was little, my husband gave him a magnifying glass and a piece of paper, and he told him if he could focus the light he could maybe start a fire. He figured he wouldn't," she said. "And 15 minutes later we had this raging fire in the driveway."
But he was far from single-tracked, his mother said, pointing to his passion for history and gym class.
"He got an outstanding foundation from Naperville School District 203," she added. "I really have to say that."
Charles always knew he wanted to be a scientist.
When he was younger, he hoped to become a paleontologist. He loved spending hours looking for fossils in the backyard of his Naperville home along the DuPage River, where he found bison teeth from the last ice age. Another great place to hunt was by Mazon Creek, near Morris, where he found some ferns from the Carboniferous Period, he said.
In high school he became interested in physics and chemistry, deciding he wanted to become an engineer. Once at Caltech, he settled on applied physics.
"I viewed (that) as a compromise between physics and engineering," he said. "One of the reasons why I didn't plan on physics in high school is because I felt like physics meant I wouldn't be building things, I wouldn't be working with my hands, the kinds of things I like, in addition to the math and science and thinking about things," he said.
"But if you build experiments in physics you get to do a lot of that -- in fact, even more than if you work as an engineer for a company."
Charles has little spare time between schoolwork, research and going to the gym, but he makes sure to devote some of it to tutoring high school students and fellow Caltech students in math and science.
"At first I got into it because I wanted practice teaching. That's probably the main benefit I get from it. But it's also fun," he said. "It's useful practice in science to learn how people respond to different methods of teaching and how people respond to new things."
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