Dr. Nathan T. Brewer: Homeschool Graduate and Nuclear Physicist

Dr. Nathan T. Brewer
When I was on the faculty at Ball State University (in the early 1990s), I started encountering a unique group of students: homeschool graduates. I knew nothing about homeschooling, but I was impressed by what I saw. Not only were homeschool graduates excellent university students, but they were also at university for more than just the chance to get a degree and get a good job. They were there because they recognized that God had given them specific gifts, and to honor Him, they needed to develop those gifts and use them to make the world better for other people. My experience with them inspired me to start working with homeschooling parents, and eventually, I began writing homeschooling curriculum.

Since that time, I have been constantly impressed with the homeschooled students and homeschool graduates I have encountered. They are still my best university students, and I expect that they will do great things. Yesterday, I had a chance to chat with one who is, indeed, doing great things: Dr. Nathan T. Brewer. He is currently doing postdoctoral research for the University of Tennessee and is employed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He is part of a team that is trying to understand the structure of the atomic nucleus by synthesizing new elements.

His proud mother informed me about his work via Facebook, so I contacted him, and he sent me a copy of the paper that he thinks contains his most important scientific work so far. In that paper, he describes experiments that he and an international team of scientists performed to show an alternate method of producing the heaviest-known element, which is named Oganesson in honor of Russian nuclear physicist Yuri Tsolakovich Oganessian. He thinks that this method shows the most promise for synthesizing even heavier elements, and it also helps us further understand how these exotic nuclear reactions happen. While all of this might sound unfamiliar to you, it is very important work in the field of nuclear physics, and I am impressed that someone so young has been a successful part of it.

While I am fascinated by the science he is doing, I thought my readers would be interested in the fact that he was homeschooled from grades 6 through grades 12, so he graciously agreed to take time out of his busy day to speak with me about topics that are of interest to homeschooling parents.

I wanted to know how Dr. Brewer went from homeschooling to a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, and he told me that from a very early age he really enjoyed the process of learning, so going to university after high school was the obvious choice. At one time, he thought about being a professional musician, but he decided to turn to physics, because he thought it would be a more stable career. He actually said:

I thought physics would be better than standing on the corner begging for money, but little did I know about grants.

If you have ever written a grant to support your research, you know what he means!

Dr. Brewer got his undergraduate degree in physics from Union University and his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Vanderbilt University. Of course, I had to ask him whether being homeschooled had helped him or hindered him in his university work, and overall, he thought it helped him. For example, he thought that homeschooling taught him how to be self-motivated, which is absolutely essential if a person really wants to succeed at the university and postgraduate levels. In addition, he thought that the freedom that comes with homeschooling was important, because he could spend more time on the subjects that really interested him. That’s one reason he ended up enjoying physics so much – he was able to spend a lot of time studying it. He told me:

The thing about studying science is that you have to be really good with everything. You have to be good at writing, you have to be good at technology, you have to be good at learning…There needs to be an optimism that you can get everything you want out of your education, and homeschooling is a great way to get that optimism.

There was one way that Dr. Brewer thought homeschooling hindered his success a bit: He was unprepared for the workload at university. He had to adjust to it. I have seen that in some of the homeschool graduates who have been in my university courses. Homeschooling parents know their children so well that they can usually tell when the child “gets it” and when the child doesn’t. As a result, when the parent sees that the child understands the topic, the parent can just move on. At university, of course, the professors don’t know their students very well, so the students must demonstrate that they have mastered the material. This leads to some homeschooled students being unprepared for the amount of work they have to do. Obviously, since my best students are the homeschool graduates, they usually adjust, but it can take some time.

Dr. Brewer is a Christian, so of course we had to talk about how he sees his faith interacting with his science. For such a young scientist, I thought he put it in a superb way:

My Christianity gives me a desire to learn. The world is absolutely breathtaking, and studying the world’s beauty fuels my faith.

He also mentioned one other way that his faith and his science interact, and it is something I had never considered:

My practice of faith has graciously given me patience. That patience has paid off in my science.

In today’s world of instant gratification, patience is a rare commodity, but it is absolutely essential in science. For Dr. Brewer, his faith was an integral part of finding out how to be patient.

I want to end with what Dr. Brewer thinks is the most important message that he can give to homeschooled students. I think it applies to all students, but because of the nature of homeschooling, I think that homeschooled students can probably benefit from his advice more than other students. When thinking about what you plan to do after school:

Think carefully about the end game. Think about what the career you are thinking about looks like. Find a mentor to help you get a realistic idea of the career.

Dr. Brewer mentioned the importance of finding a mentor several times, and I strongly agree with him. There is no way for a high school or first-year university student to really know what a career is like. If you think you want to be a physicist (or chemist – I had to throw that in) find a physicist (or chemist) who will help you discover what the career is like. The more personal interaction you have with a mentor from the field in which you are interested, the better you can determine if that field is what God is calling you to do. With the freedom that homeschooling gives, I think homeschooled students can spend more time interacting with a mentor than most other students, so you should definitely try to take this advice to heart.

While Dr. Brewer spends most of his time discovering new things in nuclear physics, he does have a blog that he updates from time to time.

NOTE: A fellow chemistry professor who is much more creative than I am suggested that I should have ended the article this way:

While Dr. Brewer spends most of his time discovering new things in nuclear physics, he does have a blog that he updates periodically, like he does the table of elements.

ADDENDUM (added 7/11/2019): A video of Dr. Brewer discussing his research was recently released.