Allegheny Senior Has His Sights Set on the Planets and Beyond

Ever since his childhood growing up near Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, James Scarborough has had a keen interest in the nighttime sky and often considers what it would be like to explore those shiny points of light that he gazes at in wonder.

Scarborough brought his love of the stars to Allegheny College, where he is now a senior. While excelling as a student-athlete at Allegheny, he keeps his focus on the heavens and has put himself on a trajectory toward a career in space exploration.

Allegheny College senior James Scarborough works on a summer research project. (Photo by Ed Mailliard)
Allegheny College senior James Scarborough works on a research project in summer 2019. (Photo by Ed Mailliard)

Scarborough’s journey to Allegheny started when he was contacted by a football recruiter and visited the Meadville campus. He knew immediately where he would spend his time as an undergraduate.

“I loved that I had an opportunity to continue playing the sport I loved, and after talking with the professors and employees I found out about how great the education was at Allegheny,” says Scarborough, who is a physics major and astronomy and psychology minor.

“When I talked with the coaches and professors about how I would be able to study physics and play football it made my choice easy. I chose Allegheny over a few other colleges that also gave me offers to play football, but none of those schools come even close to the education standard that Allegheny sets.”

Scarborough graduated from Slippery Rock High School with a 3.6 GPA. He played football, was on the wrestling team and ran track. He also was on an Ultimate Frisbee team that played in the Pittsburgh-area semi-pro league. He enjoys fishing, camping, coaching youth sports, adventuring in nature, cooking and discussing comic book themes.

While at Allegheny, Scarborough says his goal has been to “learn as much as I can while here. I try not to worry about grades as much as actually comprehending the material so that I am able to have a solid foundation of knowledge moving forward in my career.” He says he has particularly benefited from the research experiences that Allegheny provides, which have challenged him to “solve issues and come up with new solutions moving forward.”

Scarborough worked with Jamie Lombardi, professor of physics, on research in the summer of 2019. Scarborough ran a computer code to simulate collisions of stars, and he also experimented with different ways of visualizing these collisions, Lombardi says.

Near the end of that summer experience, Scarborough co-presented his work during a lunch talk to nearly 100 student and faculty researchers from Allegheny, Lombardi says. “Afterward, several people sought me out to say how impressed they were with the talk. They commented specifically on his enthusiasm and that of his co-presenters, as well as on how understandable and fascinating the main ideas of their work were. James pursues his studies with vigor and with an inquisitive mind. It’s clear that he stays engaged with his research and is interested in probing the connections to subjects he’s studied in his courses.”

When he returns to campus for the spring semester, Scarborough will be working to complete his senior project, which involves simulations of stars colliding with black holes. He has been testing a version of the simulation code and determining how to make it as fast and accurate as possible.

“I really enjoy learning about how stars work and evolve throughout the universe,” Scarborough says. “I also enjoy learning about the ways that planets form and move in the universe. I would really like to discover a planet in my professional career one day.”

Allegheny senior James Scarborough plays football and is a Gator Guide for the Admissions Office.

Scarborough says he has adjusted well to the current hybrid learning environment. “I have not had any trouble with my classes so far,” he says. “Although I would prefer to be in the classroom all the time, having [some] classes over Zoom has been kind of fun and less stressful. I do miss hanging out in the physics lounge after class with all the physics majors, however.”

Meanwhile, the Gators’ football team has been working out and watching film, but has been unable to play intercollegiate games during Scarborough’s senior year due to the global pandemic. “I was very disappointed that we did not have a season but I was grateful for what we were able to do,” says Scarborough, who plays in the defensive backfield. “At this point I am hoping for anything just so that I can have one more go at it.”

He also is a Gator Guide for the Office of Admissions and enjoys meeting prospective students and their families. “I make it a point to talk about the high level of education that Allegheny offers for everyone no matter what major they decide on, and emphasize the low student-to-professor ratio for all the departments. I then make it a point to talk about the clubs on campus and how there seems to be an option for everyone with the vast selection of clubs.”

Scarborough is also a Gator Youth Sports Mentor, working with student-athletes in the Meadville area, and he belongs to the Society of Physics Students. When he graduates in May 2021, Scarborough says he wants to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

“I then hope to do research somewhere and eventually work for NASA,” he says. “My ultimate dream goal is to become an astronaut and go into space to do research.”