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Northwestern music student hits high note with astrophysics

Kyle Kremer plans to study astrophyics next year at the University of Cambridge in England after being one of 14 Americans awarded the Churchill Scholarship. The music major is also an accomplished trumpet player. (John P. Huston, Tribune reporter)

Kyle Kremer plans to study astrophyics next year at the University of Cambridge in England after being one of 14 Americans awarded the Churchill Scholarship. The music major is also an accomplished trumpet player. (John P. Huston, Tribune reporter)

It’s a 10 minute walk from Northwestern University’s music building to its physics building. Some might think the two subjects are worlds apart.

In his nearly four years at the school, Senior Kyle Kremer wore a path between them.

“It keeps me in a shape, when I do it four times a day,” Kremer said.

Now the trumpet-playing music major has forged a new path: To England, to study astrophysics for nine months at the University of Cambridge — the same institution where the field’s most shining star, Stephen Hawking, once taught. Kremer won the opportunity when he was recently awarded the Winston Churchill Scholarship.

Sara Anson Vaux, Northwestern University’s office of fellowships director, called it “a monster honor.”

“We put it up there with the Rhodes and Marshall and Gates (scholarships). In terms of academics and research, it’s the crème de la crème,” Vaux said.

About 100 top American institutions — including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and University of Chicago — are invited to nominate their top two math, science or engineering students. From that pool, 14 were selected this year, she said.

Vaux said Kremer is as notable for his trumpet playing as for his astrophysics.

Kremer arrived at Northwestern to study music in 2008. He picked the trumpet up as an 11-year-old living outside Dayton, Ohio. By high school he was winning concerto competitions.

“And then I realized, I could see myself doing something with this,” Kremer said.

As a senior in high school he developed an interest in physics. That year, as part of a group, he helped author a paper that was published in an academic journal. It used Major League Baseball data to show that pitches with the fastest curvature have the smallest break.

“We were using pretty basic school calculus and applying it to a real world scenario,” Kremer said.

Nonetheless, when it came time to choose a college, he focused on music. He decided to bring his trumpet to Evanston to focus on classical music performance, but he wasn’t interested in leaving his passion for physics in Ohio. Northwestern’s program allowed him to take plenty of science courses as electives, he said.

“The fact that I was able to pursue a completely different interest, it sort of raises my whole level of intellectual ability,” Kremer said. “It’s the idea that if you only work one aspect of your brain you’re going to max out eventually.”

He gives the same advice to incoming freshmen.

“I’m not turning my back on something I enjoy, which is what a lot of people do,” Kremer said. “I say if you’re interested in something crazy that’s completely irrelevant to science or whatever your major is, just go for it.”

And he credits his musical interests with helping him succeed scientifically.

“I think I can certainly say that if I had not done music, and had focused entirely on physics, I don’t think I would have gotten the Churchill (Scholarship), because music enhances my intellectual capabilities, but it also enhances my appeal in terms of these scholarship, it shows my, I guess, range of interests,” Kremer said.

Vicky Kalogera, a physics and astronomy professor and co-director of Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics, remembers the day when Kremer came to her as a freshman music student asking to take part in a research project.

“He was very shy and hesitant, but at the same time there was some spark in how he explained to me how he loved both doing physics and music,” Kalogera said.

She gave him a shot, and it paid off. Kremer’s second research project under Kalogera’s direction was published by a leading astrophysics journal, she said.

“By that time I knew I was dealing with an exceptional student,” she said.

Kalogera said doesn’t play an instrument and can’t judge Kremer’s trumpet ability, but she knows he is as highly regarded as a musician as he is a scientist — something she considers an amazing feat.

“Most people would be thrilled to be at the top of either of these areas as undergraduate students. But he was able to be at the top of both sides,” she said.

Kremer focuses primarily on classical music, but he also plays some jazz, he said. As part of Northwestern’s program, he was able to study partly under Chris Martin, the principal trumpet player of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — a musician Kremer admires.

On the astrophysics side, he focuses his attention on black holes and neutron stars, he said. Both are examples of high density matter. A neutron star is “like the mass of the earth compressed into a sugar cube,” he said. It’s a unique opportunity to make scientific breakthroughs.

“They present matter in its most extreme state,” Kremer said. “And the truth of it is the current theories of physics don’t work in these extreme states of matter. We have no idea what happens there. So it’s really at the frontier of modern physics.”

And even though his door to the elite world of astrophysics has been opened to him through the Churchill, he’s packing his B-flat trumpet and taking it to England with him.

In fact, it’s his goal beyond his study at Cambridge to return to the U.S., earn a doctorate degree in physics, and eventually be both a professor of astrophysics at a research university as well as a principal trumpet player in a symphony orchestra — no small task, in either field.

“I just really enjoy performing, and I really enjoy research,” Kremer said. “I’m always able to keep in mind what it feels like to perform and what it feels like to publish, so when I have that in mind, I’m able to keep working hard and keep pushing through the grinding stages when you just feel like you’re struggling through it.”

Both give him a rush of adrenaline, he said, but in different ways.

“Music is more of a feeling of an extreme rush of adrenaline in the moment, when you’re performing,” Kremer said. “It’s like an athlete. Science, it’s not so much the in-the-moment feeling, but it’s more of when you get a publication you feel like, ‘Wow, I made a valuable contribution in my field that’s hopefully going to have a lasting impact.’ You might say science is more fulfilling in the long term because obviously a publication is going to last a while.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, the 21-year-old remarked about the relatively laid-back quality of his final semester at Northwestern. It’s been a markedly less hectic schedule, with plenty of opportunities to have a social life outside the physics lab or rehearsal room.

This particular weekend he had one plan he was most excited about: Star Wars Episode I in 3-D. There was no irony in his tone when the classical trumpet player who studies the physical nature of the heavens scoffed at the mention of the film’s bad reviews.

“But it’s Star Wars,” he replied, with a grin.

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