APS News

Native American Physicist Pursues Career at Caltech

By Ernie Tretkoff

Former APS Corporate Minority Scholar J. Sequoyah Aldridge, a member of the Cherokee Tribe, recently received his PhD and is now a physicist at Caltech, making him one of a small number of Native American physicists. Aldridge, a 1/8 degree Cherokee, is the great grandson of Sequoyah Trottingwolf, after whom he is named.

Aldridge grew up in Escondido, California, a suburb of San Diego. As a child he demonstrated an aptitude for math and science. “At a young age, to keep myself occupied, I took math classes at a community college,” he said. He says he became interested in physics at about the same time. At age 11, he started taking classes at Palomar College. At age 13 he took calculus, and obtained the highest grade in the class. Aldridge attended San Pasqual High School, but after two years he had taken all the science and math classes the school offered, and was looking for more advanced coursework. So he decided to enter college early, and in 1991, at age 15, he enrolled at Caltech.

He applied for and received the APS Corporate Minority Scholarship, which he says was valuable to him. “Everything helps,” says Aldridge.

The young Aldridge found Caltech very challenging academically. He remembers no particular role model or mentor, and never knew any other Native American physicists, but says that did not deter him from pursuing a career in physics. He did not find any particular challenge in being a minority in physics, he says.

Aldridge spent three years at Caltech as a physics major, and then transferred to the University of California, San Diego, where he completed his BS in 1997. He obtained his PhD in December 2004 from the University of California, Santa Barbara, working on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and nano-electromechanical systems (NEMS), with advisor Andrew Cleland.

Recently, Aldridge accepted a position as a research engineer in condensed matter physics at Caltech. “It’s weird to be back at Caltech” as a scientist rather than as a student, he says. His work involves applying NEMS devices for use as mass sensors.

He is also now happily married, and has a 1-year old daughter, who will also become a member of the Cherokee tribe.

Aldridge says he never doubted his choice of physics as a career, and he advises other young minority students to pursue science if they are interested in it, and not give up. “They should go ahead and go for it if they are really interested,” he says.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff