Science career goes global

John McConnell, left, and Derek Vigil each has used the van belonging to the John McConnell Math and Science Center in Grand Junction to provide outreach to area students.

In accordance with Newton’s first law, once Derek Vigil was set in motion, he stayed in motion.

Vigil, a 2004 graduate of Fruita Monument High School, is now a graduate student of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is studying computational condensed matter.

It’s a prestigious graduate program, studying such heady questions as what kinds of solid matter can be used inside computer chips in an effort to make them less volatile and more conductive.

Vigil credits John McConnell and the Math and Science Center of Western Colorado with setting him in motion toward a career in scientific study.

“I cannot tell you what kind of impact it had,” Vigil said on a recent visit to the Grand Valley.

He began volunteering at the Math and Science Center as a junior in high school. He wanted to teach a series of summer science camps to fourth- and fifth-grade students.

“I looked at it as really a way to build his confidence,” recalled McConnell, founder and director of outreach for the center, which now includes his name at the start of its name.

Vigil’s confidence grew enough that he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Illinois, one of the top engineering schools in the country.

“We just kept up the conversation,” McConnell said of the many years he has mentored Vigil.

After graduation, Vigil spent another summer as a volunteer at the Math and Science Center before beginning his studies at Berkeley.

Here, he was able to balance his love of science with his desire to help people, Vigil said.

“There’s always been this tension inside to balance the scientific career with the philanthropic,” Vigil said.

That internal tension led Vigil to India in 2007, where he learned about the history, the culture and the language and how much the country has developed economically.

“I have a personal interest in rural development,” he said.

Vigil returned to India in 2009 and recently founded, with the help of two field workers in India, the Public Participatory Institute.

The institute is a microfinance organization, with the goal of empowering India’s rural women by providing them with funds to start businesses and education to maintain those businesses.

“It’s under a different model, which provides technology and training that is not there with other microcredit groups,” Vigil said.

“I really believe that when women become empowered, the whole society improves.”

McConnell is most impressed by the way Vigil has taken what he learned at the Math and Science Center and spread that knowledge around the world.

“I think he’s an awesome young man, and he has a broad world view,” McConnell said. “He’s a great honor to us — but I just think of him as one of my kids.”

McConnell knows the Math and Science Center has been an important avenue for many kids in the past decade. He often receives thank-you letters, especially around graduation time.

Vigil said he hopes he has served as a good example for other students in the Grand Valley.

“I want them to know that they can make a change in the world. It’s very hard, but it’s very worthwhile. Dream big and try things,” he said.


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