Inside the Wanek School of Natural Sciences, you’ll always find Nolan Roth in Room 129.
He lives there – almost. He keeps clothes, blankets, even a suit and tie in a plastic bucket because he spends way more time there than in his dorm room.
It’s known as the Physics Undergraduate Research Laboratory. Roth calls it the PURL. That’s his clubhouse, and it’s the headquarters of the university’s Rocketry Team and the Society of Physics Students. Roth is president of both.
Roth is one of two Extraordinary Leaders for the month of March. He’s incredibly curious about everything around him.
He sure hasn’t sat still.
Roth’s Relentless Drive
Roth, a senior majoring in both physics and computer science, is involved with an incredibly eclectic mix of campus organizations.
He’ll go from the PURL to classes.
Or he goes to collect food for local shelters, fine-tune his improvisational chops onstage or play his mom’s trumpet with the pep band as loud as he can.
Or, he’ll catch up with his brothers at Alpha Phi Omega, and they’ll do service work from High Point to Ghana.
Then, he heads back to the PURL.
Roth excels at academics, too. He’s a Presidential Scholar, a member of three honor societies, and last summer, because of his regional work with the Society of Physics Students, he interned with NASA.
His academic advisor, Dr. Briana Fiser, the chair of HPU’s physics department, calls Roth one of the most driven undergraduate students she’s ever taught at High Point University.
To understand where that comes from, go way West, to the flatlands of eastern Nebraska and a tiny town named after an Otoe Indian chief.
“That’s Yutan, Nebraska,” Roth says. “It’s just down the road from Wahoo.”
Roth, the youngest of three, grew up outside Yutan. His dad worked as a software tester for a financial systems company, and mom taught chemistry and physical science at Yutan’s only high school.
Roth lived next to his maternal grandparents’ corn farm. He could hop a barbed wire fence and be over there in a minute or two, or he could walk through the woods for a quarter mile and be at the farm of two of his uncles. They raised pigs and rabbits, chickens and ducks.
By seventh grade, his family moved into Yutan — population, 1,174. In Yutan, Roth would sit in the living room or fold clothes in his parents’ bedroom and watch documentaries moderated by scientists like astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Roth became enamored with physics. He talked about it with his parents and his older brother, Jordan. By the time his parents moved to the North Carolina mountains his senior year in high school, he started looking at schools in North Carolina.
That’s how he found HPU – and Dr. Aaron Titus.
The Impact of One Moment
Roth came because of the university’s physics department. But he also came because of Dr. Titus, a professor of physics.
Roth arrived on campus for one of HPU’s Presidential Scholar weekends, and he met Titus at a reception. Titus couldn’t wait to show Roth an asteroid grabber HPU students built in 2015 for NASA.
That one moment spoke volumes to Roth.
“He wanted to show what his students did, not what he had done,” Roth says. “That was a huge thing for me because I realized I’d be learning from people who really cared about what I was learning.”
Roth has taken three courses with Titus. Roth is on his fourth course with Dr. Fiser. He has seen her every week for nearly the past three years. They talk physics, graduate school, career paths – and blood clots.
HPU: Where Mentorship Abounds
Since his freshman year, Roth has helped Fiser conduct her research into understanding blood clots. She uses experimental biophysics as a tool in her research. But when she saw Roth was interested in computer science and coding, she tweaked her research to include more of that.
“I knew that would help foster his creativity more than some of the experimental stuff we were doing,” Fiser says. “And it brought together two things he really loved. It helped him discover a new area, a hybrid that will help him in the future.”
Fiser is not an academic anomaly on campus, Roth says. He finds his HPU professors helping him and other HPU students the same way.
“Professors at other schools want to throw you onto their own research bandwagon,” Roth says. “But here, professors are willing to learn alongside their students. They’re willing to keep learning themselves.”
Roth’s Altruistic Roots
Before HPU, Roth’s extracurricular interests revolved around band and drama. At HPU, his interests expanded. In his first week on campus, he found out about the university’s Food Recovery Network at HPU’s Activities Fair inside the Slane Student Center.
He joined and understood right away the importance of reaching out.
Grocery stores are scarce or missing in low-income neighborhoods in the surrounding area, and local residents have a hard time finding affordable and nutritious food.
That’s where the Food Recovery Network comes in.
Since his freshman year, Roth has gone to HPU’s catering commissary in the basement of Wanek to help distribute the food the university doesn’t use.
For the past year, he’s been the president of the Food Recovery Network. The year before, he was co-president with Carter Lohman. In the past two years, the organization has donated 10,000 meals.
Roth also has volunteered more than 500 hours since coming to HPU. Much of that has been with Alpha Phi Omega. That’s how he got to Ghana, and that’s where he met a man named Christopher.
Volunteerism’s Timeless Lessons
Roth and other members of Alpha Phi Omega joined the Ghana Make a Difference organization and spent two weeks in the fall of 2018 working in a hospital, a children’s home and a dentist’s office.
Roth met Christopher at the dentist office. Christopher was waiting in line. Then, he jumped out of line and started volunteering by painting and digging ditches. Roth and Christopher worked together, and Roth heard Christopher’s story.
Christopher, a short, slender man in his early 50s, told Roth about why he left his home country of Sierra Leone. In the 1990s, he was volunteering with the Red Cross when he got captured by the rebels during the civil war and threatened with death.
A rebel stuck a gun to Christopher’s head. But the Red Cross pin on his shirt saved his life, Christopher told Roth.
Roth knew of the civil war, which lasted 12 years. His parents worked in Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps when the civil war began in 1991. His parents were helicoptered to safety.
Christopher’s story inspired Roth.
“It showed me you should never stop helping people,” Roth says. “Someone always needs help, and through my time with APO, that keeps me going, that keeps me serving.”
HPU’s Rocket Man
Since his freshman year, Roth has performed improv at HPU. He’s done 30 shows as a member of the university’s improv group known as Charcoal Pony, and he’s learned how to laugh, embrace silliness and appreciate what he calls the “quirkiness of the world.”
Since his freshman year, he’s also performed with eight different musical ensembles on campus. He’s played every year with the Spirit of HPU Pep Band, using the same trumpet his mom started playing in fifth grade.
Of any musical ensemble he performed with at the university, the Spirit of HPU is his favorite.
“There’s nothing more exhilarating,” Roth says, “than playing loud and high.”
And there’s nothing more exhilarating than spending hundreds of hours building a 13-foot rocket out of plywood and incredibly durable cardboard. Then, Roth would travel to New Mexico in June and join 100 other rocket teams in at least a 100-degree desert to see how high their 50-pound rocket can fly.
Almost two miles in the air, Roth says.
“Paddy Clancy taught me that a rocket can explode before your eyes after hundreds of hours of work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it again,” Roth says. “You just work a little harder next time and build another rocket.”
Clancy, a 2019 HPU graduate and former president of HPU’s rocketry team, got a job after graduation with Northrop Grumman, a well-known aerospace and defense technology company. He works on rocket motors.
As for Roth, he’s been accepted so far to two graduate schools. He has yet to decide where he wants to go. But he knows what he wants to study: computation geophysics.
He discovered that interest at HPU.
Hard Work Pays Off
Roth knows the benefits of stepping out.
He became a liaison between the national office of the Society of Physics Students and 30 other collegiate chapters. Titus convinced Roth to do that.
Those connections — his life in the PURL and his work organizing HPUniverse Day, an annual science event for local children — helped him snag a coveted internship.
Last summer, Roth interned with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Planetary Environments Lab.
At the center’s headquarters just outside Washington, D.C., Roth worked with world-class scientists. He helped them test devices that could be used on a probe to explore some distant asteroid in the future. Down the hall, 30 steps away, were scientists working on the Mars Rover.
Roth thinks back now and wonders, “How in the world did I get that position?”