“Sustainability for the Future” alumni panel turned their love of physics into thriving careers

“Sustainability for the Future” alumni panel turned their love of physics into thriving careers

F our physics alumni took part in the Shades of Green “Sustainability for the Future” panel held at Georgia College in November. We caught up with three of them to learn more about how Georgia College helped them set a foundation for their career success and the advice they offered other students.

Ryan Agnew, ’20, enrolled as a physics student at Georgia College after watching the Netflix show “Cosmos.” 

Ryan Agnew measures for solar panel placement. (Right) Ryan Agnew at his workstation.
Ryan Agnew measures for solar panel placement. (Right) Ryan Agnew at his workstation.

“I had no interest in physics until after high school,” Agnew said. “But that summer, I really got into the show. I thought, ‘this is what I want to study.’”

“Physics pulled at every fiber of my being,” he said. “It was something I knew I just couldn't help but try to learn more about. And Georgia College had a great physics program, so I figured, ‘why not?’”

Modern physics was his favorite class. It touched on the development of physics from the Classical era to Modern day. The course placed emphasis on the transition from preconceived ideas of the underlying framework of reality to the modern conventions discovered in the early 20th century—from concepts like why apples fall from trees to the current understanding of gravity and its relation to space and time.

“Without these important revelations, we would not understand the reality of time travel and the effect it has on your car’s navigation software,” Agnew said. “Physics blew my mind. The ideas and principles we learned about were enthralling, and painted a picture of the modern concept of how everything works.” 

“Oftentimes, I have to explain to our Internal Review Board and third-party engineering firms why my designs are configured a certain way. Dr. Bodaghee helped me communicate that to others in a clear and concise way.”
– Ryan Agnew

All four years Agnew received a scholarship through the Physics Department to do research. He worked closely with Dr. Arash Bodaghee, associate professor of physics, on a project which was published in the Astrophysical Journal in October. They analyzed a group of stars to discover their age, migration speed and where they were going. They closely observed groups of young binary stars (High-mass X-ray Binaries) gravitationally bound to each other, traveling at great speed from stellar nurseries.

“We created an algorithm that generated several randomized distributions of hypothetical locations of these stars and compared them to a map of their known location that our sister team at Harvard University and other reputable institutions were able to produce for us,” he said. We tried to figure out where they originated from, how fast they traveled, their age and where they were going. I was immediately invested in this.”

As a physics student, Agnew traveled a lot, presenting his research at several conferences. These were great places to network with others. This opened up opportunities for him.

Today, Agnew is on the Engineering Design Team for Radiance Solar, LLC. Much of his job involves defending his work, so he appreciates the analytics he learned from Bodaghee.

“Oftentimes, I have to explain to our Internal Review Board and third-party engineering firms why my designs are configured a certain way,” Agnew said. “Dr. Bodaghee helped me communicate that to others in a clear and concise way.”

He works simultaneously on different projects, chiefly in AutoCAD, the company’s main design software, drawing up large commercial and utility scale ground- and roof-mount solar projects.

“Our company relies chiefly on high-quality engineering and design, so there’s a lot riding on my team’s shoulders,” Agnew said.

He came to Georgia College to speak on the “Sustainability for the Future” panel. It felt like coming home to him—seeing his peers, professors and the Office of Sustainability staff.

Students told the panel about their career interests. It was exciting for Agnew to learn they were on the same professional trajectory and journey as him. He encouraged students to take their time at Georgia College and establish close relationships with peers, professors and state legislators.

“The alumni network here is incredible,” he said. “They will reach out to you. You feel like you’re a person and you're still relevant. It’s just a great resource to think independently and lead creatively.”

Agnew takes comfort in knowing he’s offsetting carbon emissions through his position.

“I feel good knowing what I'm doing is paving the way for a greener future for everybody,” he said. “I also know that my work is at least laying the groundwork for a more sustainable future.”

Another member of the sustainability panel, Rylan Gordon, ’20, was in his senior year of high school, when he discovered his passion for physics. Like Agnew, Gordon said it blew his mind. He, too, enjoyed the modern physics class with Bodaghee.

“That class was just nuts,” Gordon said. “It was hard enough where I could understand the material, but just out there enough where every concept blew my mind. I couldn’t believe we have math to explain how crazy things happen. Because Dr. Bodaghee’s focus is astronomy, all of his concepts made the class extra interesting.” 

(Left) Rylan Gordon stages boxes of string inverters, transformers, weather shielding, hardware, etc. for the next project.
(Left) Rylan Gordon stages boxes of string inverters, transformers, weather shielding, hardware, etc. for the next project.

“Physics was the first thing that gave me concrete answers to questions I had in looking at the world as opposed to arbitrary, opinion-based classes,” he said.

Gordon conducted solar power research for nearly four years at Georgia College, fabricating thin film solar cells with a high-pressure magnetron sputtering machine. Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, associate professor of physics, was “exceptionally good” at challenging students with open-ended projects.

The lessons he learned from his professors here frequently help him as an operations engineer with Inman Solar. They help him think critically. 

“Physics was the first thing that gave me concrete answers to questions I had in looking at the world as opposed to arbitrary, opinion-based classes.”
– Rylan Gordon

“Dr. Bodaghee, told us our first day in class that if we ever messed up a math equation in our professional careers, bridges could collapse,” Gordon said. “This taught me to be accountable for my work. Since then, I’ve always double checked all my calculations.”

He felt some great concepts came from the Sustainability for the Future panel.

“It helped reassure students who are panicking, because the physics program is challenging,” Gordon said. “I told them once they graduate and go into the workplace, everything will seem easy. This was a huge message I feel like we got across really well.”

“The future of energy will not be found in fossil fuels,” he said, “but will encompass a full spectrum of diversified energy including solar, which has a positive effect on the economy and environment.”

Nowsherwan “Nash” Sultan, ’21, was a third panel member. From a young age, he was fascinated with natural phenomena and the science behind them. He studied physics for three years at Georgia College and finished with a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech. 

(Left) Nash Sultan after finishing a solar panel project in Macon, Georgia.
(Left) Nash Sultan after finishing a solar panel project in Macon, Georgia.

At Georgia Tech, Sultan worked for Renewvia Energy doing solar on a commercial and industrial scale. He started off as a design engineer, then was promoted to project engineering manager after graduation.

At Renewvia, Sultan designed solar systems on rooftops, overseeing each project through all its phases. He helped the business team with proposals, created the electrical design and mechanical infrastructure and worked with vendors. On the construction side, he performed quality checks with subcontractors. Once the project was completed, Sultan helped commission it and handed the product to the customer.

In February, Sultan started as project manager of solar independent engineering at DNV, where he manages independent engineering projects for numerous solar companies. 

“The future of energy will not be found in fossil fuels, but will encompass a full spectrum of diversified energy including solar, which has a positive effect on the economy and environment.”
– Nash Sultan

“When solar projects are financed through banks, they require an independent engineering firm to review the different parts of the project to show what risks are associated with each aspect,” Sultan said. “We review all engineering plans for each solar site to ensure they are up to industry standards.”

One of his favorite classes at Georgia College was with Dr. Jebessa Mijena, associate professor of mathematics. The class was linear regression, where he learned how to use data to generate models and predict future concepts. For a final project, he developed a model to see how GDP in various countries affects use of renewables within the country.

He also helped Mahabaduge retrofit three golf carts with solar panels to see how solar energy increased range and drivability. These carts are being used on campus today.

In addition, Sultan did research with Mahabaduge, including one summer at the University of Nebraska. They worked on a sputtering system that’s used to make and study thin films

“He was always supportive of his students’ ideas,” Sultan said. “For me, Dr. Mahabaduge—whose background was also in renewables—our goals aligned. It was interesting and enjoyable to work with him on projects.”

As part of the sustainability panel, Sultan enjoyed meeting other alumni from the solar industry and students who are in the same situation as he was in a few years ago. Many were interested in solar energy, which Sultan believes is the future.

“There’s been significant research in solar energy over the years,” he said. “This is due to technological advancements in labs across the country, like Dr. Mahabaduge’s, whose research is finding new ways to make the production of solar cells cheaper and more efficient.”