Stargazing Virginia Beach student spent his summer studying an asteroid with MIT professors

Rising senior, Nick West, spent the majority of his summer vacation tracking an asteroid alongside students with an interest in astrophysics. (Courtesy of Nick West)

VIRGINIA BEACH — As students look back on their summer and prepare for a new school year, one rising senior says his vacation was quite literally out of this world.

While his classmates were at the beach, Nicholas West spent a large portion of his summer gazing at the stars, making new friends and tracking an asteroid using a research-grade telescope.

West, 17, was one of 36 students from around the world to travel to the New Mexico Institute of Technology to participate in the astrophysics branch of the Summer Science Program.

The 40-day program is sponsored by NMT,  the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology. It immerses rising seniors in experimental science for either astrophysics or biochemistry.

West attends Landstown High School Governor’s STEM and Technology Academy, where he says he developed his love for science, particularly physics.

West said his interest in physics developed during his sophomore year due largely to one of his favorite sitcoms, “The Big Bang Theory.”

“Surprisingly, it was really inspirational,” he said. “While it was also a comedy, it definitely sparked my interest in physics because ‘The Big Bang Theory’ was the show [that made] it seem cool because [of] the way that it popularized physics.”

His interest also stems from a genuine curiosity in the possible scientific and technological advances that physics could inspire, West added.

Nick West was one of 36 students chosen from around the world to participate in this summers Summer Science Program in New Mexico. (Courtesy of Nick West)

According to West, his journey to the program began after a series of college visits to Princeton and MIT where he said he hopes to go after high school.

After the college tours, West began searching for summer programs he could participate in that would allow him to learn more and prepare for college.

The Virginia Beach resident jumped at the opportunity to study under professors from some of the top institutions in the world for STEM.

“It was crazy going from just reading about MIT in Virginia Beach and then actually being taught by a professor that teaches there, so it was quite remarkable,” West said.

Although West was living a dream of his, the reality of the program was a lot more difficult, he added.

His normal day would start at 9 a.m. and end around 2 a.m. the next day. Students started their schedules with a 3-hour lecture before transitioning to a computer lab.

Teams of three students would then spend a large portion of their time on assignments called problem sets, which incorporated advanced physics and math. The problem sets were due by the end of the night.

Along with other tasks sprinkled throughout the day, West said teams all had different “observation shifts” where they would track a selected asteroid and collect data on its course and movement in space.

A large objective of the program was to have a team determine whether their respective asteroid could pose a threat to Earth through their research and observation.

“On certain days we would not go to bed until 3 a.m. and we would have to get up four hours later at 7 a.m.,” West said.

Among the different tasks West worked on at the Summer Science Program, he and his team were in charge of gathering data on a particular asteroid using a research-grade telescope at the New Mexico Institute of Technology. (Courtesy of Nick West)

The long hours and strenuous work were worth it, West said, because his team’s report was published by the Minor Planet Center.

The NASA-funded organization is the official worldwide body that collects data to track the orbits of minor planets, asteroids, comets and even objects around major planets.

Along with the accolade, West said that the most satisfying aspect of the program was getting to connect with like-minded students.

“There’s no one really interested in what I am at my high school, but once I went to the program, everybody was interested in physics and it was just remarkable,” he said.

As he heads into a new school year, West said he is already thinking about college and hopes to one day attend MIT and continue his studies in physics, while also minoring in entrepreneurship.

While much of his vacation was spent doing work and studying, West said he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world — or outside of it.

“I would definitely not take one day back,” he said. “That’s how invaluable that time spent was. Yes, it was strenuous and challenging, but that’s what we signed up for.”

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