June 28, 2021

Reaching the Moon Thanks to Physics, Theatre, Math, and Dance

The supportive liberal arts community Ben Kolligs BA ’18 found at L&C provided him opportunities to discover his passion in robotics and to advance his career, even before he graduated. Next up, graduate studies in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University!

by Franchesca Schrambling BA ’22

MoonRanger is a robotic lunar rover that will be flying the to Moon in 2022 to search for water o... MoonRanger is a robotic lunar rover that will be flying the to Moon in 2022 to search for water on the South Pole. This is a cooperative science mission between Carnegie Mellon University, NASA, and Astrobotic.Like many students, Ben Kolligs BA ’18 was attracted to Lewis & Clark’s liberal arts approach, but ultimately found strength in its community. During his time at L&C, the Berkeley, California, native majored and received honors in physics, minored in mathematics, performed improv shows with Scripted, and participated in research through the John S. Rogers Science Research Program.

“I wanted a place that would allow me to take science classes and dance classes at the same time,” Kolligs said. Despite his intentions to pursue astrophysics and a plan to complete a 3/2 engineering program, “I ended up staying for the full four years to continue the research I was doing and because of the community I found on campus.”

Faculty and staff members from across the college were crucial to Kolligs’s experience at L&C and to his postgraduate path. Conversations with Professor of Mathematics Iva Stavrov gave him incredible insights into the interplay between math and physics. Acting and dance courses with Associate Professor Rebecca Lingafelter, Professor Štĕpán Šimek, and Senior Lecturer Susan Davis in the theatre department contributed to fond memories and helped Kolligs forge ahead with various interests. From the physics department, Kolligs fondly remembers his academic advisor Associate Professor Michael Broide’s willingness to listen and help him figure out his major path, his thesis advisor Assistant Professor Mohamed Anber’s expertise and knowledge, and Professor Bethe Scalettar’s insight into master’s programs and applications. Connections with these professors during his time at L&C were foundational to his time at the college and beyond.

“I met Ben during my first year here,” said Anber, who taught him quantum physics and field theory. “The training he received here is extraordinary. Being exposed to some of the hottest topics in the field—combined with a challenging research project where he had to master his coding skills to perfection—is a rare opportunity.”

Anber’s research allows for undergraduate students, like Kolligs, to be involved in hands-on theoretical research on Monte Carlo simulations, numerical solutions of partial differential equations, and group theory. Specializing in high energy physics, Anber has received two National Science Foundation (NSF) grants during his four years at L&C: a $80,000 grant in 2017 to support his research and teaching in compactified gauge theories, and a $135,000 grant in 2020 to support the development of novel mathematical techniques in nuclear physics.

Physics professor Mohamed Anber and physics major Ben Kolligs BA '18 work through a theoretic... Physics professor Mohamed Anber and physics major Ben Kolligs BA '18 work through a theoretical physics problem together.Through the Roger’s program, Anber and Kolligs collaborated during the summer of 2017 on one of the most difficult computations in theoretical physics: entanglement entropy in statistical field theory. Their work progressed during the 2017–2018 academic year, with their results published in one of the most prestigious journals in high energy physics. Kolligs went on to write his honors thesis on the same topic, with Anber as his advisor.

In searching for a place to code his research for the Roger’s program, Kolligs ended up at the Bates Center for Entrepreneurship and Leadership where he met Associate Director Chrys Hutchings. Their chats helped him discover an interest in entrepreneurship, and his senior year Chrys connected him to L&C alumnus Scott Owen at KEEN Footwear, who was looking for a robotics engineer.

“I wrote my honors thesis sitting in a pickup truck as I was driving around the country with a shoe-building robot called the UNEEKBot,” Kolligs reminisced, contributing his experience at KEEN as the catalyst for his interest in robotics. “It was challenging, but a great opportunity that only came about due to my deep ties to L&C. Now, it’s led me to reflect on the importance of making connections, and the serendipity that being in person enables.”

Currently, he is a graduate student in the robotics systems development program at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), and has plans to finish his degree in 2022. He hopes to join a robotics company and eventually start his own venture. Kolligs claims that “L&C has prepared me in a lot of ways, but the most important is my ability to explain technical concepts to non-technical folks. I learned how to see others’ perspectives at L&C, which taught me a lot about empathy—a necessary trait for any leadership role.”

Kolligs has built and designed two robots, so far. At CMU, a team collaborating with NASA and Astrobotic aims to send MoonRanger, a lunar rover that will search for water on the South Pole, to the moon in 2022. As part of his master’s program, his group has been developing a search and rescue robot called Dragoon. His current internship with ProtoInnovations provides planetary rover mobility research for NASA.

“After he graduated, we’ve been in touch on a regular basis,” Anber said. “He’s an inspiring model for any student—with hard work, enthusiasm, and determination you can achieve the highest levels of accomplishments.”