Education & Service 

Finding ways to help

Alumnus, Étude (Will) O’Neel-Judy, will use the experiences gained from their life and time at Northern Arizona University to help others succeed.

Étude (Will) O’Neel-Judy has had a lot of time to think during the pandemic. Will, who uses the pronouns they/them, is currently working on their master’s in Canada but is eager to return to the United States to be closer to family and begin helping others. “My parents and younger sister actually caught the COVID-19 virus. Thank goodness they had relatively mild cases. They are now better, but there was a time when I didn’t know whether they would be,” Will said. “That really put the magnitude of our current situation into a very personal perspective for me.”

In 2018 Will graduated from Northern Arizona University with a double major in Physics and Mathematics. Will is completing a master’s in mathematics with an emphasis in quantum information at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. They heard about the innovative computing program while participating in a summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) session. “That was my first introduction to quantum computation as a field,” Will said. “And just the idea that one day we might be able to build a machine that can dramatically expand our computational capabilities as a species was a really powerful and exciting prospect that got me interested in the field as a whole.”

Where Will is heading next is evolving, but it involves community and family. “The big thing that gets a person through is family, whether that’s your given family that you’re born into or whether that’s your chosen family—your tight community of like-minded people who provide each other with support and community,” Will explained. “I want to look into the possibility of community organizing. Also, maybe, look into becoming a school teacher and working with kids who might think they are not so great at math because, once upon a time, I was that kid.”

Before college, homelife for Will had been inconsistent, both financially and educationally. Will’s family was hit hard by the 2008 recession, and they moved frequently. The stability of NAU allowed Will’s intellect to flourish. “For me, NAU was an incubator where I learned the power of undergraduate research,” Will said. “Undergraduate research is a powerful thing to have on your résumé. Being able to say that not only did I do well in my courses and get that degree, but also to have that real-world experience of answering questions on my own.”

If I went to a larger school, I’m not sure whether it would have been as easy for me to break into undergraduate research. There were many members of the faculty, in both the math and physics departments, who were always just willing to have a conversation with me. And that’s really critical.

Will is thankful for the guidance they received from several NAU professors. Will became interested in physics primarily due to Applied Physics and Materials Science Principle Lecturer, David Cole. Throughout Will’s undergraduate career, Cole acted as Will’s mentor and wrote letters of recommendation, including one that resulted in Will’s receiving the Goldwater Scholarship. Will also credits physics Senior Lecturer Ethan Dolle, and Department of Mathematics and Statistics Professor Terence Blows for helping with research and course work.

Will shares that getting into undergraduate research for the first time isn’t necessarily easy—students need a résumé or curriculum vitae, and they need to know who is working on research. Will collaborated with the undergraduate research coordinator, Tina Zecher, and other students to form the Research Assistant Mentoring Program (RAMP), to help undergraduates. Will explains that RAMP places incoming students interested in undergraduate research with student mentors who connect them with existing research projects.

The successful experience establishing RAMP at NAU offers possibilities for Will’s next steps after graduate school. “The work I did founding RAMP was probably some of the most meaningful work that I’ve done in my entire life,” said Will.  And they hope to build on that success while finding ways to help people. “I’ve started thinking about the ways I can meaningfully employ my drive, my intelligence, and my compassion to bring communities together and get people through this difficult time.”