Creating Machines, Building Relationships
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2018 - 10:53
Alex Frenett '18
Despite his impressive accomplishments, Frenett is proudest of the personal connections he’s developed along the way.

Ask any member of the men’s club soccer team about Alex Frenett, and he’ll tell you that what he cares about the most is not the number of games the team wins but building a welcoming team community.

This is one of Frenett’s defining characteristics. Though he is known as an academic all-star in the physics department, winning the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship and completing a grueling thesis involving creating oxygen ions in a quantum state, Frenett always makes time to build genuine and meaningful relationships, be it with faculty or peers — relationships that are part of the reason Frenett chose to come to Amherst in the first place.

Finding Physics
Frenett grew up in Rochester, New York, and if you ask anyone, he is extremely loyal to his hometown. For his 19th birthday, Frenett took some of his close college friends to a nearby Wegmans to get a taste of back home. In Rochester, Frenett attended a small private school, and he credits the school’s emphasis on teaching for his passion for academics.

An eighth grade trip to a lab in Rochester was where Frenett first discovered his love for physics. Today, he recalls how enthusiastic his teacher was about the subject, crediting that enthusiasm with shaping the passion he now brings to physics.

However, Frenett is not wholly consumed by protons and electrons — he carries his curiosity for learning into any endeavor he pursues. In fact, some of his favorite classes at Amherst have been outside the physics department.

One of the key reasons Frenett came to Amherst was to explore the open curriculum, and he’s taken full advantage, telling me that one of his favorite parts of his Amherst education has been taking classes in which he is not an expert. He loves being able to hear from people at the top of their fields and, always humble, is excited to soak in new ideas and perspectives.

Frenett affectionately remembers a sophomore year class on the Quran, in which he found it refreshing to dialogue with some of history’s most influential texts and peer at the world through an entirely different lens.

He also loved recently taking a class on race relations in the Soviet Union and how they differed from those in the United States. Frenett does not feel the need to always be the authority in the room, but he does bring a zeal to learning that makes him a formidable student in any field. In the case of physics, however, Frenett usually is the authority.

Professor of Physics David Hanneke said of Frenett: “He brings a genuine curiosity about every aspect of the research, from the big picture of testing quantum gravity to the small details like the ‘zone of silence’ that occurs when a gas expands faster than the speed of sound.”

Forming Connections at Amherst
Frenett has spent the last three summers working in Hanneke’s lab, and this past year Hanneke served as Frenett’s thesis advisor. At a base level, the thesis involved engineering a machine with lasers to create and measure oxygen ions in a specific state.

Though Frenett told me not everything was rosy with his thesis — the machine still is not fully functional — he has enjoyed the process of planning and putting something together himself.

This love for creating carries over into Frenett’s hobbies. Frenett is an avid cook — one must be in order to spend three summers on campus. He loves the challenge of complicated recipes, with his favorite food being Indian. He’s a big fan of Val’s paneer — though he said he doesn’t always have the patience to make it himself.

Some of Frenett’s most treasured memories from a busy senior year are of the dinners held at the house of Professor of Physics and Astronomy Kannan Jagannathan (affectionately referred to as “Jagu”). Frenett and Jagu bonded over a shared love for physics, the city of Rochester (where Jagu completed his graduate studies) and, of course, cooking. Frenett loves Jagu’s homemade guacamole, and Jagu in turn reports that Frenett is a “fantastic cook.” Jagu also calls Frenett a “brilliant student of physics and mathematics” and was impressed by Frenett’s thesis.

For his excellent work in physics at Amherst, Frenett became one of just 211 students nationwide to be awarded a Goldwater Scholarship, often considered the highest undergraduate distinction in STEM fields.

His hard work also earned him a ticket to the physics Ph.D. program at Harvard Graduate School, where he will continue his studies next fall.

Nevertheless, Frenett is very modest about these lofty achievements, citing them as a testament to the lengths people in the Amherst community go to in order to help one another.

A Pursuit of Community
Frenett’s curiosity and desire for human connection follow him out of the classroom as well. When he finds the time, you can catch him at meetings of the Amherst Political Union (APU). Though he has strong political views, Frenett always cherishes the opportunity to hear others speak and engage with these new perspectives. He especially appreciates the opportunity for enthusiastic face-to-face discussion that APU provides.

A friend since First-Year Orientation, Becki Golia ’18 says that “although Alex often ends up in debates, his intent is always to understand others’ perspectives and continue to learn. Alex is a great listener and even better friend who supports and truly cares for all of the people in his life.”

When Frenett first arrived at Amherst, club soccer was still in its infancy. Over the course of his four years here — during two of which he has served as captain — Frenett has worked hard to cement the team’s place and standing at Amherst.

First and foremost, Frenett has sought to foster an inclusive community that is at once fun and competitive. A strong center back and one of the best players on the team, he never comes across as arrogant or condescending. Instead, he is firm yet friendly when he gives instructions and advice, relishing the opportunity to teach, something he partly attributes to the philosophy of Amherst.

For Frenett, what really makes Amherst special is the professors’ commitment to both education and research. After graduate school, Frenett eventually wants to become a researcher — no surprise, given his penchant for it already — but he also wants to have the opportunity to make an impact on the world through teaching.

He has been a teaching assistant for numerous physics classes at Amherst, and he brings the same enthusiasm he had for instruction on the soccer field into his office hours.

He enjoys holding help sessions and meeting the younger students in the department. He has also appreciated the opportunity to strengthen his relationships with faculty and serve as a bridge between professors and students, even going as far as to list TA-ing as one of his proudest accomplishments here at Amherst — a fact that speaks to both his modesty and his love for teaching.

Indeed, Frenett already seems to embody some of the best traits of teachers: genuine compassion, trustworthiness, consideration and humility. Whatever Frenett ends up achieving, there is no doubt that he will also leave his mark on all those he meets along the way.