Fox Chapel native finds boxing and physics a perfect mix, joins in huge discovery between bouts
February 13, 2016 12:00 AM
Syracuse University research student Samantha Usman with the 300 TFLOP supercomputer used to search for the collisions of black holes and neutron stars.
Samantha Usman of Fox Chapel
By Madasyn Czebiniak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Fox Chapel native Samantha Usman started boxing, she kept it from her parents.
They didn’t find out until after she was ranked second in her weight class during the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association’s National Championships in 2015 — almost a year later.
“My mom Googled me and found articles about my fights,” Ms. Usman said with a laugh during a phone interview Friday.
When she is not boxing, Ms. Usman, a double physics and math major at Syracuse University, is in the laboratory. She participated in the discovery of gravitational waves while working with the SU Gravitational Wave Group, which was involved with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
This week, the National Science Foundation said the group had detected gravitational waves, hailed as a blockbuster discovery. The waves were part of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity but had not been confirmed until now.
Ms. Usman’s undergraduate study, which focused on improving the sensitivity and reducing the costs in analyzing gravitational waves produced by binary systems, was referred to in the main LIGO study.
“I actually ran the analysis that first determined the significance of this gravitational wave,” she said. “It was very exciting, and I was amazed that I had contributed to that,” she said of the LIGO effort.
“I never thought when I was growing up that I would be involved in anything this cool, like seeing the first black hole. We’ve never seen anything like that before, and it’s just very exciting.”
Out of the lab, Ms. Usman can be found boxing. She practices about six times a week.
“I work really, really hard,” she said.
According to Syracuse.com, Ms. Usman was one of three women who composed the first-ever Syracuse University women’s boxing team to compete in the USIBA Championships, in Ann Arbor, Mich., last April. It was her first competition and she lost, the website said, but she was hooked.
The 21-year-old was on her high school rowing team and got into boxing at the beginning of her junior year at Syracuse. She tried working out at a gym to stay fit but found that if she joined others, she would be more inclined to keep it up. She also wanted to be able to defend herself. And so she chose boxing, a club sport at Syracuse.
Her parents, both physicians, were less than pleased.
”My mom’s a neurologist who specializes in epilepsy caused by blunt force trauma to the head. So clearly she’s not going to be happy when she finds out her daughter is boxing,” Ms. Usman said.
“But despite my dad saying that he’s not happy about it, he tells me about how he shows all of my fighting photos to his nurses. He seems so proud about it. My mom, on the other hand, she seems proud, but she’s definitely not keen on it.”
Mike Usman of Indiana Township said his daughter feels a need to defy expectations.
“Even though she is a small woman, she can defend herself,” he said. “She can fight competitively, and she can be a brilliant scientist. The more people tell her she can’t do that, the more she’ll do it.”
Ms. Usman, who graduates in May, has been accepted into Cardiff University’s Ph.D. program. Cardiff, which is in Wales, has a large LIGO group and Ms. Usman wants to continue her research there.
At first, Ms. Usman had a hard time figuring out what she wanted to do. She went to Syracuse to study engineering and ended up switching to physics because she didn’t like the way engineering was taught.
Engineers think more about how to do something while physicists think more about why something works. She took a physics class that connected her to LIGO, ”which was a great decision, clearly.”
Mr. Usman said his daughter was interested in math and science as a high school student, and in calculus ”she got all the answers right but she wouldn’t show the work, because it was intuitive for her.”
Madasyn Czebiniak: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1269. Molly Born contributed.
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