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Finding His Future in the Stars

Richard Vo,’14 Physics

Richard Vo, ’14 Physics, inside the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The observatory houses the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes, which collect data Richard uses for his research (photo courtesy of Richard Vo).

Richard Vo’s Astronomical Discovery is Rooted in Family’s Support

As the youngest of 10 in a low-income family, this San Jose native found his future in the stars, though life hasn’t always seemed as brilliant as the galaxies he’s admired.

Surviving anywhere

Richard Vo, ’14 Physics, was born and raised in South San Jose in a working-class family. “It’s kind of weird just growing up in a big family, in one house.  It felt like a giant sleepover every day.”

Richard said his parents, now both of retirement age, have always worked and to this day his mother continues to cater, serving others to help provide for the family.  “My mom has been working at home since as long as I can remember,” he said. “She caters food (and) delivers food. She’s been doing that for a long time, ever since I was born, and she’s still doing that today.”

As a result of their parents reverence for hard work, Richard’s oldest brother Trung Vo said all of his siblings are self motivated. If ever they desired to participate in an extracurricular activity, they had to provide the funds. “Now we appreciate what we work hard for… We all can survive anywhere,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the conditions, we’ll adapt, and that’s the good thing about (growing up with little resources). When you’re a kid, you look at others like ‘Oh man, how come they have everything I don’t have’ but now that I am grown, I’m glad we went through that because now I understand we can live (through anything).” Richard Vo has had many different jobs since he was 16, from bowling alleys and retail to tutoring, to get what he wanted. Tutoring has been especially rewarding.

When I help somebody out and they do well, it puts a smile on my face,” he said.

Lyly Mai, an Administration of Justice major at West Valley College, met Vo three years ago and works with him at Learning Star Tutoring Center. In that time, she has observed Richard’s easy-going and approachable personality reach his students. She said Richard works with youths in the eighth grade and older and is able to break down walls with them in a way the other teachers can’t. “He really doesn’t make the kids feel uncomfortable,” she said. “When we see new kids, they feel really shy and don’t want to interact with anyone but with him, he tries to open up, so they will open up and ask questions.”

Getting involved 

SJSU was not Richard’s first choice and he was frustrated that he had to go to a university in a place all too familiar.  “I have a huge family and everyone moved out, so someone had to stay at home with my mom and dad. Since I’m the youngest, I kind of had no choice,” he said. “I wanted to explore, be a college student, basically just live a whole new life and go somewhere to a city I’d never been before because everything in San Jose just felt so ordinary for me. Growing up here, nothing’s changed. I wanted change.”

Richard Vo,’14 Physics

Richard’s co-curricular and extracurricular activities have helped him build confidence (Christiana Cobb photo).

He found the change he was longing for first in his fraternity. During his sophomore year, Richard contemplated transferring to the University of Southern California but at the same time, he joined Alpha Omega Tao and became more involved at SJSU.

That was all the change I needed,” Richard said. “I realized you don’t have to go far to find change, you’ve just got to find change wherever you are.”

Skyler Rohrbaugh, ’16 Business Marketing, is one of Richard’s fraternity brothers and in the time they have known each other, Rohrbaugh has seen Richard as a big part of the fraternity. “His big-and- little family line [his fraternity big brothers and little brothers] is one of the tighter ones in our house,” he said. “They all really like each other and have a genuine family/friend bond.”

Part of Richard’s initial dissatisfaction with SJSU came with his disconnection with his electrical engineering major, which he entered after much influence from his brother Trung. Trung, a mechanical engineer, advised Richard to be an engineer because of Richard’s skill in math and science. Trung knew that being an engineer is a good way to make a living quickly after college. Richard said that engineering was something his brother “knew” Richard would be good at, but Richard was not convinced, so he switched.

Changing majors

Richard siblings are not very supportive of his career path because they don’t quite understand what he is studying or what he will do with his degree. As the youngest, Richard said he feels the pressure to succeed and be the “the biggest shining star in the family.” However, Trung said that he truly wants Richard to be happy and have the best life he can.  Trung said he advised Richard that in his pursuit of physics and higher education, he should work to financially support his endeavors.

Richard Vo,’14 Physics

From the Keck Observatory telescope room, Richard video chats with Assistant Professor Aaron Romanowsky in San Jose (photo courtesy of Romanowsky).

Richard began to truly understand what he wanted to do after his first physics class. “When I took my first physics class, that’s when I got the idea of majoring in physics,” he said. He said changing majors is one of the greater decisions of his life.

It’s always really good to figure out what you want to do and what you have a passion for,” Richard said.

As Richard became more invested in physics, he began working on a breath-taking discovery that could potentially define his future. In fall 2012, Richard took a computational methods course with Assistant Professor Aaron Romanowsky and later emailed him with interest in researching objects in the sky. “I wanted a better knowledge of what I wanted to study,” he said. “You don’t want to pursue a career on something if you don’t know what it’s about.”

As a newer professor, Romanowsky said this was the first time a student approached him about doing any independent study research.

“It’s been really good too, to see how he’s stuck with it,” Romanowsky said. “It takes a long time to get anywhere, and you have to really have patience and be able to deal with frustration. A lot of people will start a research project and kind of give up after a while because it’s taken so long or they get stuck.”

Following his passion

In January 2013, Richard began his research. Though he had been intrigued with astronomy and the stars, he didn’t quite understand what today’s astronomers do. Romanowsky introduced him to using software to find different astronomical objects, which upon further inspection may turn out to be stars, supernovas, galaxies, asteroids – any number of things twinkling in the night sky. “You know looking though telescopes doesn’t really happen these days, it’s basically like giant digital cameras,” Romanowsky said.

Richard Vo,’14 Physics

Richard conducted research this term at the Keck Observatory while preparing to publish details of his major discovery (photo courtesy of Richard Vo).

In fact, the first time Richard looked into a telescope was last summer when he had the opportunity to look into his nephew’s.

I spent three months trying to figure out the programs,” Richard said. “I saw a whole different side of the computer world.”

Once he nailed down the computer skills, Richard stumbled upon his own discovery, which will soon be described in detail in an academic journal. For now, all Richard can share is his discovery is linked to a paper Romanowsky released in September about the sighting of an ultra-compact galaxy, the densest of its kind up to that point. Richard’s discovery is a record breaker and younger than other like objects. As of a result of his finding, Richard had the opportunity to do further research this term at the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.

Richard worked tirelessly with people all over the world and was in awe of the technology used to observe at his object. He said he hopes this is not the end of his education, as he prepares to write his journal article and look deeper into his object.

Planning for the future

Despite his success as a student, Richard expressed concerns for what happens after he receives his bachelor’s degree, though he does desire to go to graduate school and continue researching.

Richard’s supporters don’t see any reason for him to worry. “He’s nervous but, to be honest, when I look at him, I know he’s good with his future,” said Mai, Richard’s co-worker. “I see a lot of people our age who don’t know where they’re going or what they want. With him, he knows exactly what he wants. He’s goal-oriented and he’s going for his goal.”