Samuel Borer: Dancing among the stars

When Samuel Borer isn’t choreographing the University of Maine’s next School of Performing Arts dance performance, running an ultramarathon, protecting the nation from weapons of mass destruction or figuring out new ways to detect one of the physical world’s most elusive subatomic particles, he’s probably thinking about space exploration.

Borer has wanted to be an astronaut since he was 9 years old, and while he has yet to truly extricate himself from the gravitational binds of our pale blue dot, this past summer he had the opportunity to feel the simulated weightlessness of space in a specially modified Boeing 727.

“We flew in the plane that NASA contracts. The entire interior is padded and they’ll pull really high G’s for about a minute,” says Borer. “You lie on the ground, and it feels kind of like someone’s pouring cement on your chest and as you get up in altitude, you just start to get lighter and lighter and, suddenly, you lift up off the floor and you’re floating.”

Throughout a series of steep climbs and dives called parabolic flight, passengers on the plane experience the sensation of weightlessness. These flights are an important part of astronaut training.

“It’s the coolest experience ever, and it’s something you really can’t describe,” says Borer.

Borer was a contestant in the 2016 Xploration Outer Space Student Astronaut Contest. As the winner he was invited to take part in the Zero-G flight.

“It was great to get the validation that what you are doing to accomplish your goals is working,” said Borer, noting that becoming an astronaut is perhaps one of the most competitive professional endeavors that exists.

Xploration Outer Space is a weekly syndicated television program that highlights new science in space exploration. An episode featuring Borer and his experience will air on Fox TV, Hulu and Amazon Prime the second week of November.

Borer grew up in a military family. His father was in the Air Force and he spent the first half of his life growing up in a small town in the U.K. before moving to Minnesota. After graduating high school from the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, Borer intended to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in professional dance.

However an injury and change of direction brought him to UMaine in 2011.

Currently a senior in the Honors College, Borer is completing a degree in physics with a minor in astronomy, as well as a degree in mathematics with a minor in statistics. He is expecting to graduate in 2018.

In addition to his rigorous academic program, Borer is an active member of the Maine Air National Guard, where he works as a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) emergency management specialist. His job entails assessing the threat and vulnerability of our nation’s military assets in respect to attacks from weapons of mass destruction.

Borer has served overseas in both Kuwait and Afghanistan, and currently holds the rank of staff sergeant.

Over the summer, Borer was a research intern in the Neutrino Physics Division at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) outside of Chicago. During his internship, Borer worked to help develop groundbreaking new tools to identify subatomic particles, including neutrinos.

Despite being one of the most abundant fundamental particles in the universe, neutrinos are famously difficult to detect and rarely play by the rules of physics, at least as we currently understand them. Fermilab is a leader in the research of neutrino physics.

Borer worked on the LArIAT experiment, which is a smaller, precursor study to the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), which is slated to be the largest neutrino detector experiment ever conducted.

Borer regards the internship experience as a defining moment in his burgeoning career as a scientist.

“The opportunity to surround yourself with professional physicists and engineers who are trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe is unparalleled,” says Borer.

After the internship, Borer was asked to join the Fermilab research team as a full collaborator. He is currently investigating the use of machine learning in analyzing data to identify unknown subatomic particles, working in collaboration with Saima Farooq, a lecturer in the UMaine Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Jennifer Raaf, an associate scientist at Fermilab.

Despite numerous successes in his academic career in physics and mathematics, Borer has recently turned his scientific interests to neurobiology, and this semester he began taking pre-medical prerequisite classes.

“I think the brain is the most amazing thing in the entire universe,” says Borer. “It is complex, confusing and crucial, yet it has such an elegance and beauty to it.

“The fact that science still has many big questions is one of the greatest things about it. We (scientists) recognize that it is okay not to have an answer to something as long as you still pursue the best questions.”

Borer is always in pursuit of new “best questions.”

Why UMaine?
I originally came to UMaine just following my twin sister here, who had been accepted to the social work program. In some sense it was purely by chance, which is amazing to think about since I am now so integrated into the university. I stayed at UMaine because of the people who influenced me. UMaine is filled with people who are passionate in their craft and want to better themselves so that they can better serve others. Those are the kind of people I want to surround myself with.

How has UMaine shaped your academic interests?
UMaine has been a catalyst for my growth academically and when I look back it is hard to imagine where I would be if I did not open myself to all the opportunities UMaine has given me. When I came to UMaine as a freshman, there was no way I would have guessed I would end up as a physics and mathematics major. In fact, I did not think I was capable of handling the academic rigor of those disciplines. I originally came in as a mechanical engineering student and was blown away by the opportunities available. Within a month I was involved in designing a 3-D printer for the Robotics Club, building a small-scale formula car with FSAE, and teaching dance in the Hip Hop Club. These experiences gave me an opportunity to meet other people and share experiences with the UMaine community. I took PHY 122 with Dr. George Bernhardt and his enthusiasm for physics is what caused the initial interest in physics. I switched into physics and everything took off from there. It has been a crazy and amazing ride and UMaine brought me to where I needed to be, whether I knew it at the time or not.

How would you define the opportunities for student success at UMaine? Is there any particular initiative, program or set of resources that helped you succeed?
The best part about UMaine is the diversity in opportunities for student success. I was able to find an opportunity for every aspect of my life and the sum of all of those has been the greatest contributor to my success. The only limiting factor is you and the time/effort you are willing to put in. If you want to learn to dance, we have five incredible dance clubs specializing in all types of dance styles. If you want to learn about investing, we have a student managed investment fund of over $2.3 million that you can participate in. If you want to learn about UMaine traditions and history, we have four traditions societies that have been an integral part of UMaine’s history for more than 100 years. There is a niche and club for anything you want. If there is something you want to participate in that we do not currently have, you can work with the UMaine Student Government and start the organization yourself with their support. Being involved in so many amazing clubs and organizations has been one of the biggest contributions to shaping who I am today.

What are your plans for your time following UMaine?
After I graduate, I plan to head off to medical school. I will have six years in the military and will most likely continue through medical school. There is just a lot more school in the future, with four years of medical school and then seven years of surgical residency. I am very excited to get the chance to join the Medical Corps and help people in medical need. I cannot think of a better way to spend my time.

What advice do you have for incoming students to help them get off to the best start academically?
The best thing I have found to help your academics is to make a study group with people in your class. Working through homework together, studying for tests together, discussing the textbook together, it can be amazing how well you will know the information. Working in small groups is fantastic because it allows you to have a sounding board for your ideas. Also, it gives you an opportunity to teach the material to someone and if you can understand it well enough to teach it, then you will do well. Also, get to know your professors, especially those in your department. These are working professionals who have a wealth of information to share with you. These are also people who might conduct research that you are interested in. They are who you will be looking to for letters of recommendation also. Finally, make sure you take time for yourself. Getting good sleep is of equal importance to studying for your test. You cannot perform at your best if you are not taking care of yourself. There are many resources around campus and people who want to help you succeed, utilize them.

Contact: Walter Beckwith, 581.3729