Sidney Malak decided to take “a stab in the dark” last year when pursuing summer employment.
“I contacted a bunch of professors at the University of Cambridge by e-mail and said I was interested in seeing what they were doing and wondering if they were looking for (help),” said Malak, a double major in physics and mechanical engineering. “One (professor) got back to me and said ‘come on over.’”
Never mind that Malak had not been outside of North America and only knew of Cambridge’s materials science program from a friend of his parents. He was soon spending more than two months studying thin film as one of the only undergraduates researching at the university’s historic Cavendish Laboratory.
“’What can I bring to a group like this?’” Malak remembers asking himself. “It was just a matter of working hard.”
The time in Cambridge also was a rich cultural experience worth going back for, the 23-year-old senior from Syracuse said.
“I got to meet people from all over,” he said. “I was living with guys from Japan, China and Hungary. We’d make dinner together. It was interesting to hear some of our differences.”
Science and research have been constants in Malak’s life since high school. After his freshman year at Binghamton University, he was able to work in a physics lab on a thin film-magnetism project. The project led to a paper – with Malak as first author - on “magnetotransmission spectra” being published in the Journal of Applied Physics in 2009.
“At Binghamton, undergraduates can have a tremendous impact on the research activities of the University,” said Bruce White, associate professor of physics and associate director of the Center for Autonomous Solar Power. “Sidney distinguished himself in this regard by generating research worthy of publication in one of the more prestigious journals of applied physics. The quality of his research not only provided a wonderful learning experience for Sidney but also provided great benefit to the University as it continues to grow its research activities.”
Malak spent the summer of 2009 at Rice University in Texas for a Research Experience for Undergraduates program, where he worked on physics projects. As a high school junior, he developed and received a patent for a snowboarding deterrence device. Malak’s self-proclaimed “simple device” covers the screws that connect the binding to a snowboard.
Malak, whose father encouraged him to go through the process, believes patents are something schools should stress more.
“I’m surprised that more engineering programs don’t go over the process,” Malak said. “With engineers, you’ll have projects where you have to design something yourself. But you don’t go the extra step: If you want to make it and manufacture it, you have to get a patent or nobody will put money into it.”
In addition to his success in the research labs, Malak said he has learned a great deal from serving as a physics and calculus tutor in College-in-the-Woods for the past three years.
“That’s one of the most useful experiences I’ve gotten out of college,” he said. “You meet a lot of people and you learn the material so much better.”
Tutoring has enabled Malak to improve his public-speaking skills and explain scientific ideas to non-scientists.
“It’s all well and good to discover new things, but if you can’t communicate what you’ve found, it’s going to hamper the science,” he said.
Malak, who enjoys snowboarding, cross-country skiing, basketball and downhill mountain biking, is now looking at graduate schools. He is applying to PhD programs in materials science so he can “wear many different hats” as a scientist. He eventually wants to apply his scientific skills as an entrepreneur and start his own business.
“I’ve learned a lot at Binghamton, and not just in terms of science,” he said. “I’ve learned how to live your life and I’ve gotten to know people from different areas. I’m sure that if I could remember what I was expecting college to be like, this will have surpassed it.”