Center Honors Namesake’s Scientific Enthusiasm

Fascinated by the work at the Center for Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy, the late Nick Begovich gifted $7 million for faculty and student gravitational-wave research.

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Image Credit: Teresita Ramirez, Geoffrey Lovelace, SXS Collaboration, LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

Josh Smith, professor of physics and Dan Black Director of Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy, recalls that upon visiting the now-named Nicholas and Lee Begovich Center for Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy, Nick Begovich was especially impressed by the level of student involvement in the research done by the center – and by how many students were first-generation college students and members of groups traditionally underrepresented in physics.

“Nick would often say, ‘What those students are doing is just amazing!’ when we discussed student-centered research that would put us among the leaders in developing the country’s next-generation gravitational-wave observatory and the optical technology and gravitational source modeling that it will require,” Smith says.

Nick Begovich, who passed away in May 2020 at age 98, was an electrical engineer who made groundbreaking contributions to air defense system design. A university donor and longtime supporter of scientific endeavors at Cal State Fullerton, he was fascinated with the Center for Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy and had frequent conversations with faculty about their recent discoveries.

In late February 2020, the Begoviches gifted the university 14 postwar European sports and grand touring cars from Nick’s collection, valued at $10 million. From that gift, $7 million was directed toward faculty and student gravitational-wave research – the largest single gift in the history of the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics.

The couple’s contribution was the lead gift for the five-year, $200 million “It Takes a Titan: The Campaign for Cal State Fullerton,” which kicked off in March 2020. It is the University’s first-ever comprehensive philanthropic campaign, prioritizing projects that enhance academic innovation, empower students, transform campus structures, and enrich the community.

The Gift of Next-Gen Research

Smith says the Begoviches’ gift has already allowed the center to begin expanding student and faculty research capabilities.

“The current gravitational-wave detectors have made the first discoveries of gravitational wave sources, but like Galileo’s first telescope, these instruments are only just sensitive enough to observe the nearest and brightest systems,” Smith says. “CSUF is part of a worldwide effort to develop the next-generation U.S. gravitational-wave observatory, Cosmic Explorer. With Nick and Lee’s gift, we are currently working to renovate and upgrade a new large laboratory and outfit it with the technology needed to carry out research and development for Cosmic Explorer.”

“The study of gravity and optics is the arena of physics I am most passionate about, and it is the foundation of my research. Instead of just reading articles and working with off-the-shelf devices to conduct this research, with all its complexities, it is important to have access to custom instrumentation and innovative tools. Thanks to the generous donation by Nick and Lee Begovich, we now have that access and the ability to be competitive and make significant contributions within the scientific community.”

– Mike Rezac (BS ’20), a first-year physics graduate student in GWPAC

The Begoviches’ gift specifically supports research into the optics and optical coatings for future gravitational-wave detectors. In particular, center staff are working on upgrading the lab with a large annealing oven and a cryogenic vacuum chamber (the latter funded by a National Science Foundation grant) so that researchers can understand the behavior of these optics at high and low temperatures.

The gift has also allowed the center to advertise for a second postdoctoral researcher who will work directly with students and faculty on research, education, and outreach. Additionally, Smith says the center is working to grow its capabilities in the theoretical research areas of black holes and neutron star gravitational modeling.

“An insatiable curiosity and support of humanity’s quest for knowledge,” is what Associate Professor of Physics Geoffrey Lovelace remembers most about his conversations with Nick, and those qualities define the Begoviches’ gift.

“The first time we met, I remember Nick asking Josh [Smith], Jocelyn [Read], and me to tell him about the discovery of gravitational waves, which the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory had just announced,” says Lovelace, a faculty researcher at the Nicholas and Lee Begovich Center for Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy. “So, Josh started out with the same explanation we’d all been practicing, ‘A century ago, Einstein predicted gravitational waves…’ But Nick just smiled and gently let us know that he already knew all that, and what he really wanted was the real story. So each of us tried again, and each time, Nick asked us to ratchet up the technical level, until we found ourselves at the whiteboard in Josh’s lab, answering the kinds of questions we’d normally only get from other physicists!”

Powering Student Potential

Lovelace recalls Nick Begovich remarking on this gift, “I hope I’m setting an example. To supply the funds to advance our understanding of the world — that is amazing joy … real joy.”

“I would add that any gift to support our students can have a huge impact,” Lovelace says. “Most of our students support themselves financially through college. Even a small gift can make a huge difference for them, by letting them concentrate fully on their studies and research instead of dividing their time between college and a job. For instance, we’re incredibly grateful for Dan Black and the Black Family Trust for their philanthropic leadership and Nancy Goodhue-McWilliams’ support of our graduate students.”

Smith says the members of GWPAC are incredibly thankful to Nick and Lee Begovich for their generosity and their support of gravitational-wave research, education, and outreach at CSUF.

“I feel blessed to have known Nick and to have felt both his boundless curiosity and enthusiasm for scientific research and his compassion,” he says.

Through this gift, Nick Begovich hoped to help develop the attributes of inquiry, exploration, innovation, and inspiration so central to scientists and engineers, adds Mike Karg, senior director of development at the college.

“Nick and Lee’s gift was also an acknowledgment of the tremendous thought leaders we have on our faculty. They are truly great minds who care for the development of our students,” Karg says, adding that gifts of any amount “provide a vote of confidence in the work we do day in and day out in the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics.”

The college has witnessed tremendous growth in philanthropy, leading to new student scholarships, fellowships, educational and research space modernizations, and investments that support an excellent educational experience for students.

“The College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics is a tremendous vessel to create a positive change in our society,” Karg says. “Nick and Lee understood that, and we hope others will follow their example.”

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