For his first research project at Utah State University, Undergraduate Research Fellow Owen Graham chose a unique, and potentially controversial, topic: Determining the ideal dog.
At first glance, it might seem an unusual academic endeavor for a brainy physics and math major who is also pursuing a computer science minor. But the Honors student undertook the exercise with conscientious preparation, a solid research design and a thorough proposal.
Graham’s conclusion based on his research findings? The ideal dog is a golden retriever.
Put away your swords and stand down.
Graham’s own dogs, which he proudly displays on social media, are a golden doodle, a poodle and a terrier mix (“We found him, so we’re not entirely sure what he is.”).
He laughs when asked about people’s reactions to his research project.
“Dog lovers have their favorite breeds,” Graham says. “But my project involved weighing each breed’s ability to perform the jobs humans most often ask of the dogs, along with each breed’s emotional intelligence and likelihood of bonding with humans. There are breeds more likely to perform better than golden retrievers at certain tasks, but the golden retriever was, overall, the most versatile.”
Graham’s next area of research was less divisive — at least in most social circles. As a participant in the College of Science’s inaugural Rapid Fire Research event in Fall 2021, the first-generation college student channeled 20th Century theoretical physicist Max Planck.
“I calculated Planck’s constant, which is a method of describing relationships in quantum mechanics,” he says.
This past summer, Graham had the opportunity to experience Planck’s homeland, and study at Germany’s Freie Universität Berlin.
“I lived with a host family, so I was able to work on my German language skills,” he says. “The experience made me a lot more appreciative of the difficulty of being an immigrant who is trying to learn a new language. It also opened my eyes to the possibilities of living abroad in the future.”
Graham says he’s grateful to USU’s Office of Global Engagement, which helped him arrange the trip and navigate pandemic restrictions, as well as to the USU Honors Program, which awarded him a scholarship to defray the cost.
Back at USU, Graham is embarking on yet another research endeavor: A theoretical plasma physics project with faculty mentor Eric Held in the Department of Physics.
“I’m excited to get started,” says the College of Science ambassador. “For this project, we’ll likely be asking for help from USU mathematics faculty member Joseph Koebbe.”
The Murray, Utah native is also busy as a physics teaching assistant, along with advising new students as an Aggie First Scholars peer mentor.
“The Aggie First Scholars program helps first-generation college students navigate the ‘hidden curriculum’ — things we might not know about because we don’t have a family member or a close friend back home to show us the ropes,” Graham says. “AFS helps students with such logistics as signing up for classes, planning for deadlines, taking advantage of free tutoring services and equity resources, and much more.”
Graham notes Utah State’s student body includes more than 3,000 first-generation scholars.
“I think that number may surprise a lot of people,” he says. “A lot of students depend on their parents or older siblings for college advice, and it’s hard when you don’t have that resource. All Aggies need to understand there are no dumb questions, and faculty, staff and upperclassmen are eager to help.”
Graham, who received a 2022 College of Science Scholarship, says it’s also important students know about scholarship opportunities and how to pursue them.
“I’m very grateful for scholarship support,” he says. “It’s really nice to not have to worry about funds and to focus on school. Scholarships allow me to pursue meaningful research and prepare for grad school.”
Graham is hard-pressed to identify a favorite class, but he says physics faculty member Rob Davies’ intermediate classical mechanics course would probably top the list.
“It was an awesome classroom environment with advanced mathematics and great discussions,” he says. “We had a great time.”
Coming from the Salt Lake City area, the 2020 Murray High School graduate says he was pleasantly surprised by the many social activities available at Utah State and in the local community, as well as USU’s sports scene.
“I love sports — especially football and basketball, so I attend as many Aggie athletic events as possible,” he says.
Graham is among College of Science Scholarship recipients highlighted as part of the College of Science’s participation in Utah State’s “A” Day of Giving Thursday, Oct. 6.
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