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Oregon State physics graduate with daughter amid tulips.

From a construction job to Hewlett Packard, a physics major takes an unconventional path to reach his goals

By Gabs James

For Rohal Kakepoto, Oregon State University seemed like a wonderful place to try living by a different pace, in a new fresh environment compared to life in Sacramento, California. He was drawn to the Pacific Northwest lifestyle. Having always enjoyed math and problem-solving, it was a natural decision to study engineering, so he applied and got into the College of Engineering at Oregon State. He wanted to change the world and started out in environmental engineering, then realized it was primarily about water testing. Then he became interested in energy systems engineering. When that didn’t seem right, he switched to mechanical and finally electrical engineering. “I made my own path,” he said. He really did. He took a less-common path that has made for a successful life journey.

“I made my own path.”

Kakepoto was drawn to STEM fields because of his deep curiosity about fundamental science. “We can memorize and learn the formula for the volume of the sphere, but how they got there was calculus! I thought that was really cool to get into the guts of things,” he said.

As an out-of-state student, Kakepoto took advantage of the Dual Partnership Program which allowed him to take courses at Linn-Benton Community College that would go towards his major at Oregon State. He found taking classes at community college to be an economical and rewarding experience to supplement his coursework at OSU. The introductory physics series he took with Greg Mulder at Linn-Benton deeply inspired Kakepoto so much that he decided to add physics as an additional major to his engineering degree.

Establishing Oregon residency is a tough process for students, but Kakepoto decided it was worth the time needed in order to stretch his college dollars. He took some time off and started working in construction. During the years he took off he started a family and kept his passion for learning alive through self-directed learning. He quickly found however, that the deep comprehension he got in the classroom could not be “replaced by reading books or watching lectures online.” Kakepoto would have to return to college to get the understanding he needed to pursue his career goals.

“We can memorize and learn the formula for the volume of the sphere, but how they got there was calculus! I thought that was really cool to get into the guts of things."

Coming back to school, he streamlined his degree by dropping engineering and just majoring in physics. With the lived experiences of working and supporting his family, Kakepoto was able to recalibrate and reprioritize. “It was day and night” he said, in relation to how he needed to budget his time, and where to focus his energies. He needed to continue to work and help run a household while taking on a full-time course load in school. He valued the expertise of the faculty and the intimate and supportive atmosphere of the physics department. The homework room gave students space to collaborate and assist one another through the challenging coursework. The advising experience was drastically different than his days in engineering. David McIntyre, professor and lead advisor in physics, was incredibly helpful about careers and course content. As Kakepoto said, “McIntyre even wrote the quantum mechanics textbook” that they used in class.

Understanding the "why" in research

Right before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kakepoto started working in Janet Tate’s lab to begin his senior thesis project. He continued the work of Acacia Patterson, previous Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) scholar and recent graduate, who is now doing a Ph.D. program at Washington State University. Once everything went remote, his hands-on research had to pivot towards theory, and the “why” of what they were doing. Kakepoto, too, received a SURE scholarship himself and was able to get paid to continue his research last summer. While it was more of an independent learning experience as opposed to being in the lab with other undergrad and graduate students, he was impressed with the amount of time Tate spent meeting with each lab member of her research group.

The pandemic also changed the way Kakepoto functioned as a student. While school went remote, his work in construction did not. He found out how to be extremely efficient with his time. From 3 to 6 a.m. he’d have “some good physics time” doing his reading while his family was sleeping. He would then go to work, and watch lectures from class to finish out his degree after dinner and after the kids were in bed. He owes so much of his success to his partner and her ability to juggle work and childcare, while supporting him and their family’s goals. Kakepoto can point to so many who have been part of his support system. “Whether it’s my family or my work, or the faculty and classmates,” everyone has been there for him, he shared.

Through Kakepoto’s work-family-school balancing act, he has spent a lot of time reflecting about the impact of finances on college, and how class inequality can really shape students’ experiences. He has been able to appreciate his own privileges through his upbringing where although his family was not considered wealthy they did not struggle financially. This has helped shape Kakepoto’s outlook on life, motivating him to be thoughtful about how he budgets his time and money.

Like many Oregon State physics graduates, Kakepoto landed a job as an engineer at Hewlett Packard in Corvallis, which he will start right before graduation. He will be working in silicon etching on the chemical side of things. Having entered college hoping to change the world to getting real-world experience, in the end Kakepoto has recognized the importance of being in a reliable industry. Doing physics is just one of his many passions, and thankfully will allow him to be financially successful while being intellectually stimulated. When Kakepoto thinks back to his whole educational journey, he truly feels that, “It was a blast!”