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Physics Ph.D. graduate Feremenga's journey to success led him from Zimbabwe to UTA

Last Feremenga
Last Feremenga

The educational journey taken by Last Feremenga has been exciting, fascinating and has involved plenty of air travel. It began in his native Zimbabwe, continued first in Chicago and then in Arlington, and included frequent trips between Arlington, Chicago and Europe.

Feremenga, who received a Ph.D. in Physics and Applied Physics from The University of Texas at Arlington in December 2016, says he found a nurturing and supportive environment at UTA while conducting doctoral research in high energy physics. His experience in data analysis helped him land a job as a data scientist at a top technology company.

Born in a small town in Zimbabwe, Feremenga grew up in a large family — he was one of nine siblings — and became interested in physics while attending high school in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. There he specialized in mathematics, physics and chemistry, and decided that he wanted to go to college to study physics.

With options limited in his home country, Feremenga applied at universities far from home. With help from the U.S. Education Assistance Center at the American Embassy in Harare, he was accepted to the University of Chicago in 2007. Feremenga — the first member of his family to attend college — says that life as a college student in a country almost halfway around the world from his home definitely took some getting used to.

"It was a big adjustment, both culturally and climatically," he said. "My first winter in Chicago was 'blessed' with a blizzard, the intensity of which the city hadn't seen in a decade. That wasn't fun. As far as adjusting to life culturally, the university offered a lot of support to foreign students, and I relied mostly on that."

While he was an undergraduate, Feremenga was introduced to experimental high-energy particle physics, which he enthusiastically pursued. His faculty advisor at the University of Chicago, Young-Kee Kim, professor and chair of the Department of Physics, was at the time serving as deputy director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), which specializes in high-energy particle physics. With her help, Feremenga began doing research at Fermilab.

In 2010 Feremenga got the opportunity to return to Africa when he was selected to be a member of the inaugural class of the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, near Cape Town. The three-week intensive program, now held biannually, targets students in sub-Saharan Africa and is aimed at increasing capacity development in fundamental physics and related applications in Africa.

Feremenga knew he wanted to pursue graduate studies in physics but wasn't sure where he wanted to go. Kim suggested he talk to Jaehoon Yu, a professor of physics at UTA and a friend of hers. While at a conference in Chicago, Yu met with Feremenga and helped him arrange a visit to UTA.

When he visited the campus, Feremenga liked what he saw and was particularly excited by the fact that UTA physicists were playing a significant role with the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest and most powerful particle collider, located at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

"I thought Dr. Yu's research was very interesting, and it helped that he and Dr. Kim knew each other," he said. "My transition from undergrad to grad school was very seamless."

After receiving his B.A. in Physics from the University of Chicago in 2011, Feremenga headed south to Arlington. With Yu as his supervising professor, he began research on his dissertation project, which involved analyzing massive quantities of data from the ATLAS experiment. ATLAS is one of two general purpose detectors at the LHC; portions of it were constructed at UTA and shipped overseas to CERN.

In addition to UTA, Feremenga spent time at both CERN and the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, analyzing hundreds of terabytes of data from the ATLAS experiment.

"At CERN and Argonne, I assisted in developing a system that filters interesting events from large datasets," he said. "I also analyzed these large datasets to find interesting physics patterns."

In July 2012, scientists at CERN announced the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson, an elementary particle first theorized in the 1960s but never positively identified until experiments at the LHC. Feremenga relished the opportunity to work with brilliant physicists from around the globe.

"It was challenging yet satisfying," he said. "I worked side-by-side with scientists from diverse backgrounds and nationalities. I also had the rare opportunity to travel around every summer. Nothing could have beaten that."

Feremenga says Yu and other members of UTA's physics faculty, including Andrew Brandt, Kaushik De and Haleh Hadavand, were very supportive of him and his research during his doctoral studies.

"I found the environment here at UTA to be very nurturing," Feremenga said. "I grew a lot in my years here. And the Office of International Education worked with me hand-in-hand whenever I traveled. The people were fantastic and my experience here was everything I could have hoped for."

Yu says Feremenga's success stems largely from his own drive and determination.

"He was a very mature student from the start," Yu said. "He was thoughtful and a good scientist. He was a hard worker and put in great time and effort to accomplish his physics goals. I think he will be very successful no matter where he goes."

Feremenga, who recently got married and moved to Nashville, Tennessee to start his new job, says he hopes to see more young people in his home country of Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa receive the same opportunities in STEM education that he was provided.

"I would like to encourage young kids, especially from the most impoverished parts of Zimbabwe and Africa, to pursue studies in physics," he said. "Very accomplished physicists — case in point, our own Jae Yu — are reaching out in an effort to engage talent that would have otherwise been lost. To them I'd say, take advantage of that. Trust me, the rewards are vast!"