Workhorse Scholar Q & A: Joshua Wakeling

Erickson Merkel Foundation: Tell us a little bit about your family and friends growing up, and any positive effect that they had on your formative years.

Joshua Wakeling: My family was, and still is, always there to support me, especially academically. My parents, who are not college educated, were always excited to take me out to the library to pick out another large stack of books to read for the week. They knew I was staying up past bedtime to read them, but didn’t care. They always knew that I was bound for higher education. Growing up, my dad worked 70+ hours a week driving a semi-truck so that my mom could stay home to raise my siblings and me. His hard work and drive to support his family will always have an impact on me, as I grow to understand how his sacrifices allowed me to grow up comfortably. Growing up in Hilliard, it was hard to maintain friendships that lasted more than a few years. There were three sets of schools a student there could go through, and it was dependent on what area of Hilliard you lived in, but those area lines constantly shifted and caused groups of students to change which school track they were on. It wasn’t until I moved to Granville, which only had one building of each level of school, that I began to make lasting friendships which have been extremely supportive.


EMF: When you were going through elementary, middle or high school, did you have a clear idea on what you wanted to do when you ‘grew up’?

JW: In elementary school, I wanted to be a pizza delivery driver (they always seemed to bring joy to people when they came around). As I entered middle school, I was becoming very well read in Greek mythology, which was the foundation for where I am today. However, as middle school turned into high school, my best group of friends came up with the idea of going to this technical school in the state of Washington and getting us all getting these specialty degrees to start a game design studio. We were all computer geeks who loved video games, so it seemed pretty sound. That plan fell apart quickly after freshman year though, as I progressed through my Latin classes and started looking at being a Classics major. I figured I would want to be a Latin teacher, because I loved sharing information about the history and culture of the Roman people, and because my own Latin teacher was such a wonderful impact on my life, I wanted to emulate the experience I had with him and pass it on to future students. After I shadowed him for a day in junior year, I decided this was not my calling, mostly due to not wanting to deal with the clear majority of kids not really wanting to learn the language, history, and culture. It was a few months before I figured out what field I wanted to enter. I was chatting with a friend of mine about college and majors, etc., when she, who is also an astrophysics major now, asked if astronomy was of interest to me. Astronomy was always a personal interest of mine and connected to my studies, with the Greeks and Romans using the stars in so many ways in their everyday life. She touched on the fact that astronomy encompasses many fields, including astrobiology, astrochemistry, etc. The term ‘astrobiology’ really caught me, and it was then that I realized it was what I wanted to pursue.


EMF: When was it that you realized that only you could be responsible for your future, and in what ways did you take control of your life after?

JW: It wasn’t until about a month before high school graduation that I came to the realization that my future was in my hands. Having been admitted to The Ohio State University, my mother told me very bluntly that she had no funds to spare in helping pay for my education. At this point in time, my parents had been divorced for almost 5 years, and my dad was more or less out of the picture for reasons we are still trying to comprehend. This meant I was in charge of saving up any sort of money for school that I needed in the next 4 months from basically nothing (I was not the most financially frugal teenager, nor recipient of any scholarships at this time), which meant I needed to get a job as I was unemployed at the time. The first step in my case was making the decision to attend the nearby branch campus of the university for a year as opposed to going straight to main campus: it was significantly cheaper, closer to home, and I could remain at home as opposed to having to pay for a dorm room. This decision made being able to pay for college in my time frame go from impossible to much more reasonable. I managed to quickly land a job at a local restaurant as a busser, but was only able to pull at most 20 hours a week due to still being in high school. After summer started, I began working my way up to 40 hours a week, and began to transition from bussing to dishwashing. Eventually, I stopped bussing and started washing dishes full time. Shortly after, the salad station needed someone working it, and I started to bounce between making salads and washing dishes. I started helping with kitchen prep, and learned how to work the cooking line and plate the food. I made myself indispensable to the business, out of need for hours and desire to do a good job and maintain a strong work ethic. As my first semester started, I was still several hundred dollars short of paying tuition in full, but was able to enter into a payment plan that allowed me to fulfill my tuition payments in thirds. I maintained working 40 hours a week while studying a 17 credit hour course load, and successfully paid for my tuition completely out of pocket, no scholarships or loans involved. I ended that semester with a 3.8 GPA and a spot on the Dean’s list.


EMF: Were there any people you looked up to when you were younger, and why?

JW: My dad was always a great inspiration and role model to me. Although he wasn’t home often when I was growing up (and when he was he was sleeping so he could get through his next shift safely), he always took advantage of the time he had with us. He instilled a fascination for history and the sciences in me as we watched documentaries together, helped me develop my taste in music and other forms of entertainment, was always ready to help me practice something I wanted to excel at, and was generally just a great father.


EMF: Do you have any mentors now? If so, can you tell me about them and what they mean to you?

JW: I still keep in touch with my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Fisher. He was a great father figure for me in school while I was starting to see my biological father less and less. He has always been a great source of life lessons as well as Latin lessons, and continues to leave a great impact on my life. Another great mentor I have is a professor at the Newark branch of OSU, Dr. Michael Stamatikos. I was his student for one of his physics classes and also for his cosmology (not cosmetology) class. He is a NASA scientist who has been studying gamma-ray bursts in relation to black holes for many years, and is the first person who is directly in my field of study that I have been able to interact with extensively. He has been helping me develop my skills as a researcher, scientist, and student. He is not what I expected to encounter going to a branch campus, but he is one of the major reasons that I look at my past year on this campus as an extraordinary experience that makes me wish it had more math and science to offer so I could remain on it.


EMF: Are there any people living or dead who you draw inspiration from?

JW: Most recently, I have been enamored with the works of Carl Sagan. I wrote my freshman English research paper on his impacts on American society through his program Cosmos, which made me dig deeper into his other works. His involvement with the Voyager program, which is my favorite NASA mission currently in operation, gave me much more respect for him, and his constant pressure on the American public to fight for a clean and healthy Earth rings even more strongly today, more than 20 years after his unfortunate passing. His involvement in SETI is part of what drives me today to pursue the study of astrobiology.


EMF: Are there any causes that you feel strongly about, that you would like to give back to someday, or that you’ve been able to help out so far?

JW: The SETI Institute is a program I currently help, by simply doing nothing. There is a piece of software you can download from the University of California, Berkeley which allows you to download data from SETI and it uses your computer, when you allow it to sit idle, to analyze the data and send it back to SETI’s computers. It’s called SETI@home, and it’s, in my opinion, a brilliant way to allow people who cannot be directly involved with the research to help out.


EMF: When did you get your first job, where was it, and what prompted you to get it?

JW: I got my first job when I was 15, at a local farm. My mom, who is a midwife, caught their baby, and she talked to them about allowing me to work there. I worked there for only a few months as seasonal help, planting and transplanting crops as well as maintaining the land. I worked about 25 hours a week, most of that work being done on the weekends. This job prompted me to look for other jobs after I was finished with it, because it felt nice being that much more financially independent, i.e. not having to ask mom for money if I wanted something.


EMF: What keeps you motivated through long weeks of work and study?

JW: My girlfriend and friends definitely help keep my spirits up when the workload piles up. They always know what to say to when I’m stressed or upset. I’m always motivated by the knowledge that my next step is always going to be more exciting as I move into higher levels and more technical areas of my major. I love looking for the new exoplanet discoveries and hearing the speculations of what their compositions could be, how Earth-like they are, what their potential for life is, etc.


EMF: What are your personal and professional goals?

JW: My current professional goal is to work at NASA’s Ames Research Center, which hosts much of their astrobiological research. I would love to be a part of the team in charge of the upcoming Europa Clipper mission, which will orbit Jupiter and perform many flybys of its moon, Europa, which we believe has a massive saltwater ocean under its icy shell and is spurting water vapor hundreds of kilometers above its surface. The mission will use several instruments to measure how survivable Europa could be for certain forms of life, and will take physical samples of the water vapor by flying through it. My focus in my studies is looking at how extremophiles, which are bacteria who can survive very extreme environments, could survive in environments like Europa’s. My personal goals are currently limited to my academics, which will consume most of my next decade, at a minimum.


EMF: Why do you think it’s important for today’s undergraduates to have a clear understanding of debt and finances?

JW: As we all know, school is particularly expensive today. It is extremely appealing to just take on loans and debt so you can focus solely on school and worry about the money later. In some cases, this approach works just fine. But for most, it results in decades of payments and a significant amount more debt than originally anticipated. Understanding just how much money $60,000 four years in a row plus interest is, compared to $30,000 four years in a row plus interest is crucial to picking the right school for you, regardless of the name of the institution. Knowing what your current financial situation can handle, what your area of study can be expected to give you after you graduate, and how available those jobs are in the coming years is crucial. Knowing how to use your money at this point in your life can relieve a lot of stress that you don’t need on top of your studies and whatever else your life demands you concern yourself with. Don’t ignore the issue of the money, analyze, and make a plan for how to deal with the money.


EMF: Are you planning on any further academic pursuits after completing your current degree?

JW: My current degree is a Bachelor of Sciences in Astronomy & Astrophysics (one major, not two). For the kind of work I want to pursue, a PhD is pretty much the baseline degree required. After a PhD, several years of post-doctoral work is pretty typical before you settle into a career with a national lab or other institute.


EMF: After dedicating yourself to work and study, what do you do to wind down?

JW: My friends and I love to get together and relieve our stress by playing Super Smash Brothers over competitively on the Wii. My self-built PC has more games than I have time to play, but there are a select few (Dark Souls, League of Legends, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Dungeon Defenders) that I play either by myself or with a friend or two. I am currently borrowing a friend’s Nintendo Switch so I can play the Legend of Zelda, which I am engrossed in. Outside of video games, I still enjoy learning about pretty much anything outside of school. It’s not uncommon for me to go on YouTube binges watching Numberphile show crazy cool math proofs, or Louis Rossmann fix motherboards at the component level. I also listen to a lot of music, mostly electronic or alternative. I almost always have soundcloud open when I’m studying, writing a paper, or playing a game.


EMF: Is there anything you’d like to add?

JW: I want to thank my mother for making sure I push myself, and for pushing me in the right directions. While she hasn’t been able to support my education directly, she’s always supported me in every other way, and while I will never be able to completely repay her (she is my mother after all), I will always strive to make her proud.