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Mt. Pleasant Area scholar to enroll at top-ranked institute

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:30 p.m.
A.J. Panian | The Mt. Pleasant Journal
Mt. Pleasant Area senior Nathan Barton, an 18-year-old borough resident, will attend the California Institute of Technology in the fall to study physics and/or mechanical engineering. The school is top-ranked in Times Higher Education’s world rankings.
A.J. Panian | The Mt. Pleasant Journal
Before heading west, Barton will spend the summer as a member of the research team at the University of Pittsburgh’s physics and astronomy department, where he will be probing the use of a type of supernovae — or exploding stars — to study dark energy with an eye toward more accurately measuring distance throughout the universe.
A.J. Panian | The Mt. Pleasant Journal
Administrators at California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, flew Barton out to the campus located in Pasadena last fall in a maneuver equivalent to those applied to highly-recruited high school athletes.

Despite a lifelong love of math and science, Mt. Pleasant's Nathan Barton is still processing the impact of going six for six.

That's the number of college applications that Barton — a decorated member of Mt. Pleasant Area's Class of 2014 — sent during the school year to some of America's most prestigious, post-secondary universities and technical institutes.

It's also the total tally of acceptance letters he received in return.

“I applied to six, and I was accepted to six,” said Barton, 18.

And, again, these are no run-of-the-mill schools.

In late 2013, Barton, a borough resident, first heard back from the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, in Pasadena, Calif. — the top-ranked school in Times Higher Education's world rankings.

After that, a quintet of similar salutations followed in late March to Barton's doorstep from the likes of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., the second-ranked school; Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., (fourth); the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also in Cambridge, Mass., (fifth); Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Along with an acceptance, each school also awarded Barton a scholarship contingent on his enrollment.

And there could have been more.

Barton — the son of Dan Barton and Sylvia Trevino-Barton — whittled down from 12, his list of potential schools at which to carry on with his studies following the district's commencement ceremony on Sunday.

He will serve as a class speaker during the event, along with classmate Lindsay Shaffer, 17.

Barton narrowed the list of potential schools at the behest of his increasingly nervous, yet unabashedly proud parents.

“Considering the cost of traveling to them all, we had to put a limit on it,” said Sylvia Trevino-Barton with slight giggle.

“Nathan got a perfect 800 on his math SATs, so we knew the chances of him doing some traveling were pretty good,” she added.

In the end, Barton recently chose to enroll as a student at Caltech, where he will be studying physics and/or mechanical engineering.

Last fall, Caltech's administrative officials flew Barton out to the Golden State for a tour of the campus.

“Definitely after that visit, I was pretty sure that was where I wanted to go,” he said.

That did not stop Barton from recently embarking on a cross-country trip that included a return to Caltech, and first-time tours of four of the other five schools vying for his academic talents.

An experience of travel, learning unfolds

During his extended journey, which took place over much of April, Bartonbounced from Harvard to MIT, before making a return trip to Caltech, then on to USC and, finally, to Stanford before heading home.

The journey was made possible due to “admitted student weekends” offered by each, he said.

In line with the visitation packages, Barton was able to stay for a two- to four-night visit at each school, he said.

That allowed him to experience the environments of each campus, along with the culture, classes and fellow “admits,” he said.

“I got to stay with other students and learn about the schools,” Barton said. “I thought it was definitely a cool experience.”

And an opportunity for enlightenment outside of the standard educational realm, his mother said.

“It's interesting that public schools today are allowing students to challenge themselves outside the regular brick and mortar paradigm in order to achieve level of success in applying to top science schools in the world,” she said.

One school rises above the rest

Barton's passion for the sciences, especially physics, astronomy, computer science and space exploration led him to his decision to enroll at Caltech, he said.

“I'd have been totally happy going to each and every one of them,” Barton said. “I felt like Caltech was the one I definitely felt the most comfortable with.”

A big reason for that, he said, is that the school is home to a jet propulsion lab managed by its faculty and personnel for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“It's basically one of the biggest sensors for robotic exploration of the solar system,” Barton said. “I think I'd definitely like to get involved with that, and it influenced my decision to go there.”

What also swayed Barton to Caltech, he said, was the school's small enrollment, which amounts to a 3 to 1 student to faculty ratio.

“I did like the campus there. It's a very small campus ... only two city blocks,” he said. “But it felt like a much larger sense of community. You feel like you are more of an individual there.”

Other positive aspects include the collaborative feel among classmates there; and the summer undergraduate research fellowship, in which students can propose a research project and then receive funding to see it through, Barton said.

“There are tons of opportunities for students who want to do that,” he said.

What sealed the deal for Barton, he said, was Caltech's honor code: “No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community,” according to the school's website.

“There's very little cheating there. Most tests are take-home tests, open notes or open book,” he said. “If you're ever given a real world problem, there is not going to be an opportunity where you're not going to be able to consult any number of resources to solve it.”

Student works summers at Pitt

Last summer, Barton contacted officials of the University of Pittsburgh's physics and astronomy department about the possibility of taking on a volunteer researcher position there to gain experience.

“I was invited down to speak with professors there, and they told me the only positions they had to offer were paid, so that's what they offered me,” he said. “That was fine with me.”

Barton will once again be working in that post this summer, where he will continue to work with Pitt assistant professor Michael Wood-Vasey toward completion of a paper on the use of a type of supernovae — or exploding stars — to study dark energy with an eye toward more accurately measuring distance throughout the universe.

“It's been a true pleasure to work with Nathan,” Wood-Vasey said. “Nathan has the intelligence combined with the ability to work well with others and a get-it-done approach to problems that are the key ingredients for success in college and life. I look forward to seeing the amazing things that Nathan will accomplish.”

Barton will also be taking several online courses at Pitt this summer to better prepare for his college coursework this fall.

District principal, faculty open doors

Barton is quick to credit Ken Williams, principal of the Mt. Pleasant Area Junior-Senior High School, along with several instructors including Matt Gross, Fran DiVecchio and Colleen Minerd, for helping to maximize his opportunities for growth as a student there.

In particular, Williams ensured that Barton could take computer programming courses at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus in 2011-12 and online honors and AP physics courses at Stanford in 2012 through this year.“Dr. Williams has been really great about my trips, and he's always been really supportive,” he said.

In response, Williams said that, if there is a student deserving of such flexibility, it is Barton.

“He's just an exceptional young man, exceptional academically and, all things considered, just an incredible young man,” he said. “And it's always been my goal to help any student achieve their goals.”

Barton hopes to one day earn a doctorate and become a scientific researcher, he said.

“In 10 years, I hope to become a college professor,” he said.

A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or

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