Planets align for ASU Polytechnic grad passionate about physics, data science

Monday, April 30, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

Finding ways to integrate and apply new knowledge is something ASU Polytechnic campus senior Paul Horton has always found exciting.

Horton, who is graduating in May 2018 with an applied physics major from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and a software engineering major from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, was first drawn to the fields of computer science and physics his senior year at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona.

“The teacher who taught physics also taught the engineering class where I learned to program,” said Horton. “When I began using my programming skills to set up scripts to calculate my physics homework, my teacher was both annoyed and amused with my approach to assignments, but encouraged me to keep practicing both fields.”

He has done just that at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, where Horton has also been a student in Barrett, the Honors College.

“I initially started out thinking I’d do physics as a minor to my software engineering major. But having quickly finished my minor, I realized I wanted more science in my education and applied for dual degrees shortly after the new applied physics option was added at Poly,” explained Horton, who is the first student to graduate with the applied physics degree in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.

That decision and the additional coursework he took have set the course for his career.

“Once I began combining my two passions, I realized that data science in physics is where I belong,” said Horton, who will be working this summer as an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.

“At JPL I’ll be creating a machine-learning, image-recognition system to classify changes on the surface of Mars,” he said. “This system will run on satellites around Mars and optimize which images we choose to send from the red planet.” 

In the fall he’ll return to ASU’s Polytechnic campus to complete a master’s degree in software engineering.

“During my master’s year, I’ll work in ASU’s astronomical instrumentation lab to optimize algorithms used in conducting all sky surveys,” he said. “After finishing my master’s, I hope to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics with a focus in data science.”

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

Answer: Through my software engineering major and my involvement in Barrett, the Honors College, I got to travel around the world to work on education projects. In particular, I visited Tonga and Samoa to implement Solar Powered Educational Learning Libraries (SolarSPELLs) in local schools with the help of Peace Corps volunteers. Last summer, I also taught at a primary school in a small village in Kenya.

Visiting classrooms in the South Pacific and Kenya made me aware of the lack of information access in the developing world. Being able to look up an answer in a textbook or on the internet is a luxury that not all students have. On these trips, students bombarded me with questions about science and astronomy, hungry for answers. It was humbling to experience this disparity in information access, and it changed my perspective.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU and the Polytechnic campus because of the hands-on education that Poly’s degrees offer. Software engineering at ASU is very different than computer science anywhere else, due to the project-based learning courses. This aspect of the degree allowed me to guide my own education and incorporate physics into my software classes.

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

A: ASU has incredible opportunities for students to work on projects both on campus and around the world. I’ve noticed that many students don’t take advantage of these opportunities, perhaps due to worries about funding or not having enough knowledge. Professors at ASU love to help students get involved on the projects they’re working on. They will work with you to ensure that you have the funding and the knowledge you need to succeed on your project. I would highly recommend finding projects at ASU that interest you and seeking out the professors in charge, to learn more about how to get involved.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is the couch on the third floor of Santan Hall. It’s not the best couch in the world, but it’s the location that counts! I would often go up there in the middle of the night to work on assignments or just relax and look at the stars — which are more visible in the night skies at Poly, being on the edge of metro Phoenix. It’s also an incredible spot to watch the monsoons in the fall semester. 

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

A: While I doubt $40 million would completely fix the problem, I would tackle the information-access gap in the world. Having knowledge readily available around the world would give global educators the resources they desperately need to teach and give learners a reliable means to answer their own questions.