Joe Cavanagh: Exploring big questions through tiny matter

Brown undergraduate Joe Cavanagh researches the principles governing the tiniest elements of matter — work that recently earned him a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For Joe Cavanagh, chemistry is much more than one of the fundamental fields in the physical sciences.

“Chemistry is a very eclectic science informed by physics, math and intuition,” he said. “As a subject, it’s old, but I wouldn’t say it’s straightforward — it’s a big, confusing mess of lots of different principals, some of which we can mathematically formulate and some of which we just can’t.”

Fascinated by this complexity since high school, Cavanagh said he came to Brown because its Open Curriculum would enable him to carve an academic path that followed his own curiosity — about chemistry, the principles beneath it, and the complex, real-world phenomena that it has the potential to explain.

“I came here to learn about chemistry, learn about science and learn about how the world works,” he said. “For me, getting to chase different ideas that interest me is how I learn these things best.”

As a junior chemical physics concentrator, Cavanagh studies quantum mechanics — a field at the intersection of chemistry and physics that theorizes the principles governing the tiniest elements of matter: atoms and the subatomic particles that compose them.

“If I want to understand the world around me, it makes sense to start with this fundamental groundwork,” he said.

“ I thought it was going to be really hard to get started with research, but it turned out not to be. I think the culture at Brown has a lot to do with that — it’s a culture where, when we knock on a door, we’re encouraged to come right on in. ”

Joe Cavanagh Goldwater Scholar, Member of Class of 2022
Tweet this quote

Research in the field is at an exciting juncture, he said, with new advances in technology — such as quantum computers, which can perform computations exponentially faster than today’s computers — on the cusp of solving equations that have long been written off as “too hard.”

Cavanagh himself has been involved in quantum chemistry research since his first year at Brown, when he joined the lab of Professor of Chemistry Lai-Sheng Wang, where he contributes to a project characterizing nanoclusters, microscopic clusters of atoms that can serve as catalysts, medicines and the building blocks for new materials.

As a first-year student approaching Wang in his office, Cavanagh said, he didn’t know what to expect.

“I thought it was going to be really hard to get started with research, but it turned out not to be,” he said. “I think the culture at Brown has a lot to do with that — it’s a culture where, when we knock on a door, we’re encouraged to come right on in.” Nearly three years later, he said, “I’ve been able to do things that I never realized were possible.”

Cavanagh’s research was nationally recognized in Spring 2021, when he earned a Goldwater Scholarship, an award that supports promising sophomores and juniors who plan to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

Cavanagh learned about the scholarship from another of his mentors at Brown — Brenda Rubenstein, an assistant professor of chemistry and Goldwater alumna whom he first met when visiting campus as a prospective student. The scholarship, he says, will enable him to continue pursuing quantum mechanics research as he prepares to apply to graduate programs next year.

“At the end of the day, I just want to understand the world around myself,” he said. “That's really what science is all about.”