Running at Lightspeed

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The UCSC men’s cross country team finished 12th out of 17 teams in the NCAA West Regional Championships in 2011, and jumped to seventh place this past season. The program’s best finish in school history was sixth in 2013.  Photo by Casey Amaral.
The UCSC men’s cross country team finished 12th out of 17 teams in the NCAA West Regional Championships in 2011, and jumped to seventh place this past season. The program’s best finish in school history was sixth in 2013. Photo by Casey Amaral.

Theron Carmichael was baking cookies for some of his close friends on Valentine’s Day when his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number, and with hands crusted in cookie dough, he declined the call.

The voice mail left was from David Charbonneau, an astronomy professor at Harvard University.

Carmichael realized he had declined a call from Harvard — the fourth-ranked university in the nation for graduate programs in cosmology, relativity and gravity — and his brain swarmed with thoughts about his application to the Ivy League school. The following day, he learned he was accepted to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

“None of it hit me at first,” Carmichael said. “I didn’t think this could ever happen.”

As an African American and Chinese student, Carmichael was a candidate for Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) recruitment program that advocates for potential applicants from groups underrepresented in Ph.D. programs — but he wasn’t sought out by the Ivy. He had to put himself on Harvard’s radar.

Carmichael was one of two African American students admitted to Harvard’s astrophysics graduate program this term.

“That’s really important,” said John Johnson, the only African American to ever teach astrophysics at Harvard. “He’s actually one of a handful of African Americans graduating with a degree in astrophysics in the nation.”

Less than 1 percent of doctorates earned nationwide in astrophysics were by African American students in 2009.

Even though he faces underrepresentation in his field of study, Carmichael, who grew up in Tracy, California, said he found a sense of community as a student-athlete at UC Santa Cruz.

“Athletics has taken this very real burden off of my mind and allowed me to excel in my four years here,” Carmichael said. “I’m especially grateful considering this is not the case for every large public university.”

Carmichael didn’t have trouble finding a community, but for other students, this may not be the case. In UCSC’s physics department, 1.1 percent of the students are African American and 11.7 percent are Asian, while 49.5 percent are white, as of fall 2014.

These statistics are almost identical to those at Harvard, which enrolled 3,738 graduate students in 2010, and less than 150 of those students were African American. Faculty diversity reflects the same trend, where only four out of 342 professors in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) are African American.

One reason Carmichael chose Harvard over his other acceptances, which included top-ranked astrophysics programs like Princeton, University of Hawaii, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara, was Harvard astronomy professors Johnson and Charbonneau’s dedication to the discussion of underrepresentation in his field, even though they didn’t recruit him.

Carmichael’s father earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Tennessee, and his mother attended college in Malaysia, but didn’t earn a degree. While Carmichael said his parents were supportive throughout the entire application process, neither could provide advice for graduate level applications.

The GSAS programs help students break down what schools are looking for in their graduate level applicants for students who don’t have the resources to do so, an experience Carmichael wish he had when applying.

After Carmichael settles in at Harvard, he wants to be a mentor for underrepresented groups in higher education and provide support and opportunities for students interested in pursuing a master’s degree or a Ph.D.

Carmichael is a former research assistant at Stanford University’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center National Accelerator Laboratory where he answered research questions about galaxies. Photo by Alex Posis.
Carmichael is a former research assistant at Stanford University’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center National Accelerator Laboratory where he answered research questions about galaxies. Photo by Alex Posis.

“The ultimate cause is a systematic exclusion of black and brown students from every aspect of American society,” Johnson said. “The problem is a lack of equal opportunity. This lack of opportunity is a grave injustice that has been with America since its inception.”

Like Johnson, Carmichael wants students to know that they “shouldn’t have to throw a major of study out the window because of their race and ethnicity.”

The second and arguably most important reason Carmichael chose Harvard over the other universities was its appreciation for the fact that he is a student-athlete.

“When I visited Harvard and [faculty] found out I was a student-athlete, a lot of people connected with me and had a lot of respect for me,” Carmichael said. “I assumed they would want to talk about academics and research, but they were really interested in talking about running with me.”

The UCSC men’s cross country team was established in 2011, when Carmichael was a first-year. The team needed runners because it had been officially recognized by the NCAA after students had already committed to other schools, leaving coaches no time to recruit. Shortly afterward, Carmichael took the first of many leaps in his athletic career at UCSC when he emailed former head coach Aaron Jacobsen for a tryout.

“It’s so bittersweet to think that as a freshman, I helped found an NCAA team that has qualified runners, myself included, for championship awards in its infantile years, and as a senior, I am fighting to preserve the very team I helped start so it can continue to represent UCSC in sports,” Carmichael said regarding Measure 62 failing in the recent campus elections.

Cross country head coach Jamey Harris admitted that Carmichael wasn’t the most talented athlete when he joined the team his freshman year. He and Jacobsen, however, saw raw talent that would propel Carmichael to the next level as a runner if he put in the work necessary to do so.

“We are going to miss him in a lot of ways,” Harris said. “He has matured so much from a quiet, socially awkward freshman to a loud, jovial, slightly less socially awkward senior. He is the vocal leader of the men and women’s program. I know if I need somebody to step up and talk, he’s going to be the first one to step forward.”

Harris said there’s one skill of Carmichael’s that deserves some recognition — baking, the very hobby that led him to decline the call from Harvard on Valentine’s Day.

“His baking is his most underpublicized quality,” Harris said. “When he leaves for Boston he said he’s going to have two suitcases — one full of clothes and books, the other full of baking supplies. He is as talented and dedicated a baker as he is an athlete.”

It wasn’t just his 3.59 GPA, his research with renowned professors, or his dedication to the cross country team that got Carmichael admitted to his dream school. In his letter of recommendation for Carmichael, professor Jonathan Fortney called him “unusually well-rounded” in regard to the demands of being an astrophysics major and an athlete.

“My experience at UCSC would not have been the same without cross country,” Carmichael said. “I would be a different person. I may still have run, but it would have been without the extra level of competitiveness that the NCAA teams bring. It has taught me how to push myself in different aspects of my life.”

Carmichael hopes future UCSC students have sports as a resource to cope with the demands of being a student and that sports continue to serve as a community for those who may not feel welcome at UCSC. With the university’s budget augmentation not continuing in the 2016-17 school year, there’s a chance that the 14 NCAA teams will not have enough money to continue.

“For UCSC to be such a friendly environment and so inclusive yet not have sports — that’s strange,” Carmichael said. “Sports are unique at UCSC just like the school is unique. Athletics aren’t what you think they are, especially here. I truly believe my involvement on the cross country team is what made me stand out among all applicants to Harvard’s Ph.D. program.”