Bassel Saleh’s passion for science dates back to an early age when he was an inquisitive 8-year-old, sketching out his imaginative versions of quarks and atoms.
"I was definitely very committed to at least what a child's idea of being a scientist is," Bassel remarks. His insatiable curiosity led him to explore the fundamental building blocks of matter — what's inside an atom? What about the nucleus?
“This story may have been massaged to be cuter over the years,” he warns. “What my parents say happened is that I went home after learning about atoms in school and asked my dad what atoms are made of, and then what the nucleus and electrons are made of, and didn’t stop asking questions until he whipped out the periodic table and explained the basics of chemistry to me. I was just obsessed.”
Bassel credits his father, Dr. Saad Saleh who is now a professor of practice in the Chandra Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UT Austin, for nurturing his early curiosity. By introducing his son to the periodic table and delving into the basics of chemistry, he inspired young Bassel to embark on a lifelong scientific journey.
Fast forward to the present, and Bassel has become a dedicated Ph.D. student in the Computational Science, Engineering, and Mathematics program at the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. An alumnus of UT Austin with a Bachelor of Science in Physics and a Bachelor of Science with Honors in Computer Science, Bassel was drawn to the multidisciplinary aspects of computational science. Upon earning his Master’s degree in computational science and engineering, he transitioned to full-time research in pursuit of his PhD.
Working under the guidance of Professor Omar Ghattas of the Center for Optimization, Inversion, Machine Learning, and Uncertainty for Complex Systems and Professor Aaron Zimmerman of the Center for Gravitational Physics, Bassel’s research is rooted in solving inverse problems for gravitational wave applications, with a particular emphasis on Bayesian uncertainty quantification. This research is conducted with data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO).
Bassel recently rediscovered his love for writing, a passion he temporarily set aside during his academic pursuits. Eager to inspire others to embrace physics and discard the notion that they're either inherently good or bad at it, the graduate student hopes to put this passion for writing towards redefining the way physics is taught by developing teaching materials that make physics more accessible.
“I think there's this myth around physics that you have to be really smart, or that it's too hard, and I think that discourages a lot of students,” said Bassel. “You don't need to be a genius to do physics.”
Bassel points out the importance of making science relatable to a broader audience. His vision aligns with many who aim to dispel the notion of science as a tangled heap of alien or unattainable knowledge.
In this, Bassel looks to theoretical physicist and mathematician Brian Greene as a role model. The graduate student admires Greene for his ability to adroitly convey complex ideas without pretending that he is all-knowing.
“I've always been a fan of Brian Greene because of how humble he is, but when he speaks, it's with clarity and authority,” he says. “It's important to maintain that humility and admit when we don't know something. At the same time, we need to be able to explain complex things. I think that is a skill that's often overlooked."
Bassel Saleh's journey from sketching quarks and atoms as a curious 8-year-old to conducting research on gravitational waves demonstrates that the spark of childhood curiosity can ignite a lifelong passion for science. His commitment to making physics accessible and enjoyable serves as a reminder that everyone has the power to embrace the wonders of the scientific world, regardless of where our journey begins.