Photo: Char Smullyan

Class of 2013 Senior Profile: Richard Fineman

Richard Fineman CC ’13, who majored in chemical physics with a concentration in math, realized he wanted to be an astronaut after a summer internship at NASA.

It is with some trepidation that Richard Fineman CC ’13 reveals his life’s dream, which came into focus during an internship last summer at the NASA Ames Research Center in his home state of California. Not too many of his peers, he suspects, are leaving the College with the intention of becoming astronauts.

At NASA, Fineman studied the ways in which the properties of light change as a wave travels through the interstellar medium (dust and other matter that fills the space between stars). The highlight of his experience came in August, when he watched via livestream as the rover Curiosity landed on Mars, marking the beginning of a two-year mission to determine if the planet’s Gale Crater could have ever supported microbial life. “Seeing the complicated sequence that had to take place for it to land successfully was amazing,” says Fineman. “I saw 60-year-old scientists cry; they were so happy that it worked. There was so much innovation that went into it.”

As a result of that experience, Fineman, who majored in chemical physics with a concentration in math, plans to pursue graduate study in aerospace engineering with the goal of fulfilling a long-held but previously unexpressed ambition to explore space. “There are so many opportunities right now with the privatization of space flight. I want to be a part of it,” he says.

Fineman will first take a year off from academia, during which he plans to compete in several triathlons. In July, through Engineers Without Borders, he will spend two weeks in rural Nahualate, Guatemala, where he will help build a pump, well and filtration system that will provide the community with a reliable source of drinking water.

Born in Palo Alto and raised in his mother’s native Guatemala City, Fineman chose the College in part for the opportunity to explore New York City, his father’s hometown. He also was drawn by the Core Curriculum, which he found attractive for the same reasons that he studies physics. “I feel that I am more well-rounded knowing the origins of the way we think,” says Fineman. “One of the things that appeals to me about physics is that it goes into the core understanding of everything and every other science builds on those ideas; I believe that studying the fundamental background of different concepts gives you a greater understanding of the picture as a whole.”

Fineman joined the Columbia swim team as a first-year and was president of the Columbia University Student-Athlete Advisory Committee as a senior. He cherishes the bond he shares with his coaches and teammates, many of whom also belong to his fraternity, Sigma Nu. “I can’t think of anyone better to have shared my college experience with,” Fineman says.

Fineman so enjoyed his undergraduate years that he volunteered with the Columbia College’s 2013 Senior Fund, a campaign that encourages seniors to donate to alma mater. “The College has given me so much that I should give back in any way that I can,” he says.

Nathalie Alonso CC ’08

Published Wednesday May 15, 2013

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