Graham Van Goffrier: Physics, engineering major named 2018 valedictorian

Graham Van Goffrier, a physics and engineering major from Norwell, Massachusetts, has been named the 2018 valedictorian at the University of Maine.

“Being selected as valedictorian for my graduating class is the highest honor that I can imagine during my time here,” Van Goffrier says. “I am most appreciative of the constant support of my professors, family and friends throughout my years at UMaine.”

Van Goffrier is a 2017–18 Goldwater Scholar. In 2017, he received one of 240 scholarships to outstanding undergraduate sophomores and juniors nationwide who were studying mathematics, natural sciences and engineering, awarded by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

This past summer, he also had the opportunity to research in Switzerland at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, the world’s largest particle accelerator complex.

“Interacting with students and researchers from around the globe, as well as taking in the history and unparalleled technical achievements of the collaboration, was a unique and inspiring experience,” he says of his time at CERN.

At Commencement, Van Goffrier will receive a bachelor’s degree in physics, with minors in electrical engineering, mathematics and nanotechnology, and a master’s degree in electrical engineering — both earned in his four years at UMaine.

What research, internships or scholarly pursuits were you involved in as a student?
I have really strived these past four years to engage in as wide a range of research environments as possible. The summer after my freshman year, I worked as a research assistant in professor Mauricio Da Cunha’s microwave acoustics laboratory, developing a MATLAB simulation of surface-acoustic-wave (SAW) sensor devices.

The following summer, I divided my time between professor Roy Turner’s artificial intelligence group and professor Sam Hess’ biophysics research laboratory where I participated in optical modeling efforts.

Two years ago I was able to begin independent study and research in the visualization of string theory with professor Neil Comins of the physics department, a project on which I continue to work.

I credit UMaine and its professors with offering so many research opportunities to their students. This makes a big difference to any student working to determine career path options.

Beyond academics, what extracurricular activities occupy your time?
For me, the line between academics and extracurriculars has always been a blurry one. I spend much of my free time independently learning topics in mathematics, physics and computer science. Some of these are immediately relevant to my coursework, but many are purely out of interest. I have enjoyed taking advantage of UMaine’s incredible library resources.

I have actively participated in the three academic student societies which felt most relevant to my degrees, and served as president of each for one year. I found the Society of Physics Students is really committed to supporting the activities of the physics department and is quite active in offering community outreach opportunities for its members. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Tau Beta Pi are professional and honor societies, respectively, which aim to represent the entire engineering profession and its students. Participating in these groups has allowed me to interact with professional members around the country, attend conferences, serve as a student reporter, and develop my networking skills.

I have explored my creative side through the amateur theatre productions of Maine Masque and Black Bear Men’s Chorus. I had never really sung publicly before college, and even though I wasn’t a music or theatre major, both of these organizations helped me improve my skills and find confidence through performance.

I also learned to ice skate for the first time freshman year at the Alfond Arena before becoming a member of the Figure Skating Club on campus.

What are your plans for after graduation?
In October, I will enter the Master of Advanced Study (MASt) program in applied mathematics at Cambridge University, which includes one year of self-driven coursework designed to encourage independent study skills in preparation for further research. I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical physics the following year.

I believe studying abroad will be an important stage in my education, as gaining an international perspective is essential for participation in the modern scientific research world.

What difference has UMaine made in your life and in helping you reach your goals?
Each faculty and staff member of the physics and electrical engineering departments at UMaine has been constantly supportive of my goals. They have always been available to help me fit together my often unconventional course load, devoted incredible time and effort to advise my internship applications and write letters of recommendation. They clearly really care about their students, and this has made all the difference.

Have you had an experience at UMaine that has changed or shaped the way you see the world?
During my past three years of engineering coursework, my lab partner has been an excellent student named Berkay Payal who also is graduating this semester. We completed a challenging electrical engineering capstone project, adapting an engine timing system for use with alternative fuels under the guidance of Stephen Abbadessa in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Berkay grew up in Turkey, and while becoming his close friend and co-worker, I have been privileged to learn about the history, language and culture of his home. He has helped me better comprehend the world outside my own individual experience, a lesson which I take to heart as I prepare for my own journey abroad.

Why UMaine?
Growing up, my mother and I had spent summers in the Orono area, and so UMaine was a campus where I felt very much at home. During high school I participated in some of UMaine’s academic-focused summer camps, in particular Consider Engineering, where I met Andrew Sheaff of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

Sheaff helped me understand the valuable skills and experiences that could be gained from studying engineering at UMaine. I also was drawn to the sense of community here at UMaine and the many cultural options for students.

Additionally, I valued to broad range of ABET program accreditations which UMaine has gained and maintained for its engineering degrees.

Have you worked closely with a professor or mentor who made your UMaine experience better?
My academic advisers, Rosemary Smith, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and John Thompson, a professor of physics, offered outstanding guidance and took the time to identify opportunities that helped me explore my academic potential.

Andrew Sheaff of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department has been a very supportive mentor during my time in the department, especially in encouraging me to seek out research opportunities around campus.

During the last two years, I have worked closely with Neil Comins, a professor of physics, on multiple research projects. He also has been an important source of guidance as I faced challenging internship and graduate school applications, ultimately allowing me to gain acceptance to research at CERN and now to Cambridge University, which have already made such a great impact upon my career path.

What advice do you have for incoming students to help them get off to the best start academically?
I understand how fun-filled the first semester at college can be. But in between classes and social activities, take the time to visit your professors and your academic advisers as often as you can. They have guided so many students who have come before you, and their insight is of immeasurable value as you explore the multitude of career options which are available to you.

My other piece of advice is to be the exception. Go off the regular coursework track, try new combinations of topics and push yourself further than you think you can go. Take advantage of the summer and winter courses UMaine offers, so you can enjoy extra flexibility in your semester course loads. Stay one step ahead of the crowd whenever possible, and never be afraid to be the only freshman in a club or the only student who talks in a class. Unique opportunities come to those who take unique risks.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, 207.581.3745