The Oregonian: Portland State's youngest grad is 15-year-old physics major
Author: Samantha Swindler, The Oregonian
Posted: June 19, 2017

Read the original story in The Oregonian.

Grant Harter has always been ahead of the curve.

At age 11, his home school curriculum included geometry, astronomy, anatomy, chemistry and – for good measure – ballroom dancing.

At 12, he earned his first college credits through Advanced Placement testing.

At 13, he enrolled in Clark Community College.

At 14, he entered Portland State University as a junior.

And this Sunday, he'll graduate with a major in physics, a minor in math and University Honors.

At 15, he is the youngest bachelor's recipient ever at Portland State.

Yet until recently, most of his classmates and professors had no idea the shy, 6-foot-2-inch student was so young.

"I think a lot of people just haven't really been able to tell," Harter said. When classmates or professors find out his age, "There's generally some surprise there. Some people are like, 'Oh wow, how were you able to do that?' I haven't really told that many people."

Harter next plans to attend a one-year master's program in theoretical physics at the Higgs Centre at University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he'll get the chance to work at the research home of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs. Friends and professors are helping to fundraise so he and his mom can afford the year abroad.

"I'm a single parent, no resources," his mom said. "I've been in these positions before where they seem like utterly impossible odds. You just get creative and you find solutions, and that's what we're working on right now."

This isn't the story of a child of privilege pushed to excel. Harter has been raised by a single mom since 2010 when they left a situation she described as untenable. They have no contact with his father, and The Oregonian/Oregonlive has taken steps to protect their identities.

"Home schooling was a huge part of our safety bubble," his mom said. "That was our way of coping, to go into this world where this whole world opens up for you and it's safer."

They started reading very early, and Harter remembers regular trips to the library and a goal to read some 100 picture books in a week. By the time the two of them left, he was reading at a high school level.

Harter's mom was constantly looking for ways to further his interests: summer camps, music lessons, OMSI events. By the time he was 10, she was seeking out professors at local community colleges who would be willing to engage her son in conversations. When he was 12, they joined the Rose City Astronomers, where Harter completed their youth astronomy academy.

"He conquered that really quickly," said David Nemo, past president of the Rose City Astronomers. "The next year, we realized he was an exceptional study and really interested and motivated so we asked him to teach a class... We were a little concerned because he was basically the same age as the students, but he handled it quite well."

In 2014, Harter won a national youth award from the Astronomical League for his essay on "The Mass of Life." His interest in astronomy led to an interest in physics and quantum mechanics, the study of the laws by which the smallest particles in the universe operate.

Harter's college thesis, "Implications of the Nambu Jona Lasinio Model with a New Regularization Renormalization Method," discusses his work with Professor Guang-Jiong Ni to extend an existing model that describes the interactions between subatomic particles. The aim is to bring the model to the point where it would generate specific quantitative results to measure the mass created by two massless particles.

Ni worked with Harter on the model throughout the past year, only recently learning he was 15.

"What a shock to learn he was so young, because he is so tall," Ni said. He called Harter "a very promising student."

In fact, until the last few weeks when Harter was looking for recommendations for his graduate work, most of his professors didn't realize his age.

"When he was told me he was 15 I was pretty shocked, I expected him to be in his mid 20s," said physics professor Erik Sanchez. "He's definitely one of the top students, and I think basically it's his seriousness and dedication, time-wise. He shows a lot of maturity."

Professor Andres La Rosa taught Harter in Introduction to Quantum Mechanics and Applied Optics.

"He's very close to the top students in my class," La Rosa said. "He has been very consistent, doing his work, doing his homework, his questions during the lectures are pretty good."

"He's a smart one, there's no doubt," Sanchez added. "And if he goes down that route he might be able to achieve some amazing things. He might turn out to be the next Einstein, who knows... He could be a real contributor to the theoretical physics world."

Harter's friends and supporters are looking for ways to help the family raise money for educational and moving costs to Scotland. Tuition alone is about $25,000.

For Harter's mom, the move will be a fresh start. For Harter, it's another step toward a career in theoretical physics. For both of them, it's just the beginning. When Harter spoke of what he loves about quantum theory, he could also have been speaking of the life's journey ahead.

"There's just so many things that we don't know," he said. "So many things to find out."

Cut-a-thon Fundraiser
Great Clips will donate 100-percent of sales from 6-9 p.m. July 9 to Grant Harter's educational fund. You can participate at two locations:
Tanasbourne Village Great Clips, 2239 NW 185th Ave., Hillsboro OR 97124 (503-531-8898)
Bethany Village Great Clips, 4768 NW Bethany Blvd, Suite C6, Portland OR 97229 (503-533-8942)

 He's applied for several scholarships, and his mom has started a Go Fund Me campaign. Sanchez offered to sell some lab equipment toward the fund; even Harter's barber is getting involved by hosting a cut-a-thon fundraiser. All money from haircuts at the Bethany Village and Tanasbourne Great Clips from 6-9 p.m. July 9 will go toward Harter's educational fund.