Solar eclipse drew ASU Polytechnic campus graduate to applied physics

ASU College of Integrative Sciences and Arts applied physics graduate Addison Olsen smiles while standing in front of whiteboard.

ASU applied physics major Addison Olsen, at work in the tutoring center at ASU Polytechnic campus. Olsen has just accepted a job offer she’s excited about: working with a photonics company in Colorado.


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

It’s been quite a hectic semester for Arizona State University graduating senior Addison Olsen, who’s completed a bachelor’s degree in applied physics in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.

“I've just been incredibly busy with job applications, homework, graduation details, etc.,” said Olsen, who also works for CISA’s faculty of sience and mathematics as an instructional aide at ASU's Polytechnic campus.

Olsen has found the job market to be quite robust for someone with her knowledge and experience. During finals week, she received some great news that was cause for pause and reflection.

“After searching for an entry-level job in a physics-adjacent field, I just accepted an offer to work for ThorLabs. They're a photonics company, the field of manipulating and using light in various applications. Like electronics, but with photons!” Olsen explained. “They produce cool stuff like lasers and other optical equipment.

“I’m super excited about it,” she emphasized in an email. “I get to move to Boulder, Colorado, which will hopefully give me the opportunity to spend more time outdoors. I've made a lot of sacrifices to ensure that I was doing the best I possibly could in school (which I don't regret). But now that I'm graduating, I want to get back into my hobbies.”

Olsen, whose hometown is Gilbert, Arizona, said that having a relationship with nature has always been a significant piece of who she is: “It's a part of why I decided to study physics in the first place,” she said. “I also have a lot of creative aspirations related to music and writing."

Olsen described her decision to major in physics as “a religious kind of experience,” in a way.

“I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Oregon to watch the total solar eclipse that passed over North America in 2017. It left me completely awestruck,” she said. “I had never seen something so beautiful in my life. I knew then and there that I wanted to get back in school, to study what makes our universe tick and what makes an event like that possible.”

Now, with the next step in her career secured, she is already beginning to imagine her future a few years down the road.

“ThorLabs offers full tuition reimbursement, and CU Boulder has a renowned optical/quantum physics department,” she said. “I could see myself working toward a graduate degree there someday.”

Addison Olsen took time to share these additional reflections about her ASU journey.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: The biggest impact that learning all of this math and science has had on me is a constant reminder to enjoy the life I have. Understanding the reality of how hostile the universe can be to life, be it asteroids, radiation, etc., has helped me understand just how special every day is in a new way.

Q: Did your career-connected learning as an undergraduate help you on the job market?

A: Despite what I read online, earning my degree in applied physics has prepared me for the job market in a surprising number of ways. Learning to code and to interface with cluster computers is highly marketable. I'm finding that experience in a laser optics lab and a working understanding of the physics behind semi-conductor devices are also sought-after in the job market. Not to mention the ways that I have been able to develop my interpersonal skills and public speaking ability while teaching and working in the tutoring center.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU is accessible. I was able to bring over a lot of credit hours from Mesa Community College. I'm not sure that I would have been able to afford school at all if it hadn't been for that. The STEM programs here have good reputations as well. I knew that I would be able to connect with a wide variety of professors to figure out what my niche is and what my deeper interests are.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: So, I'm transgender, and have started transitioning during my last year at ASU. Professor (Maxim) Sukharev was explicit about the fact that it would never affect my status here at school and that I would always be welcome here. I think it's really important that students feel welcomed in places of learning like ASU, regardless of their background. After worrying about what people in the STEM community might think about me for so long, Professor Sukharev showed me that the status quo can change.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Use the tutoring center! There are a ton of resources there. I wish that I had used their services more when I was first taking all of my math courses.

Q: Did you have a favorite spot at ASU Polytechnic campus for studying?

A: I really love the library — though it was (understandably) a bit more difficult to use during the pandemic. Having access to big whiteboards for exploring problems was always super beneficial. It's a great place to set up meetings with classmates to discuss difficult topics. Eventually, after the pandemic started, my favorite place to study became my room, out of necessity. I spent a lot of time making sure that it was a comfortable, relatively distraction-free space for me to work in. Now that things are mostly back to normal, I've been doing a lot of reading outside. The Polytechnic campus is gorgeous.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: There are a couple that I think about from time to time, and they have to do with energy. Developing new, efficient methods of energy storage and retrieval would go a long way. I love the idea of being involved in some kind of new battery technology. Safe, modular nuclear reactors appeal to me as well, and would make for a clean way to generate energy! There are countless humanitarian efforts that would benefit greatly from that kind of money, too.

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