Curiosity ‘fueled me’
In spite of lifelong hearing loss challenges, Algona native earns sixth advanced degree
Some people collect coins or stamps or maybe even classic cars. However, many collections would pale in comparison to the collection Justin Wittrock has amassed.
Wittrock, a 2006 graduate of Algona High School, collects degrees. In fact, he has six college degrees he’s collected over the last 17 years.
After graduating from Algona High School, Wittrock attended Iowa State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology in 2010. Upon graduation, he decided he wasn’t quite done with his education, and he started at the University of Iowa, where he earned two more bachelor’s degrees — astronomy and physics in 2013.
Wittrock wasn’t done yet so he left for the West Coast to earn a master’s degree in physics with a concentration in astronomy from San Francisco State University in 2016.
This spring, Wittrock collected his final degree, finishing his doctorate in physics from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. While at GMU, Wittrock happened to also pick up a master’s degree in engineering and applied physics as well.
“I just happened to be eligible,” he said.
Wittrock’s motivation for his education comes from looking up at the night sky.
“Well, ever since I was little, I was always curious and fascinated with the stars, basically,” he said. “And I was even more into the planet itself, given how the diversity is in sizes, masses, or the competition and all that stuff.”
During his education, Wittrock began to gravitate toward studying exoplanets, which are planets that orbit stars other than the Sun.
“Other planets outside our solar system, basically,” he said. “That’s what I was really interested in doing.”
Wittrock’s journey to reach these accomplishments wasn’t always on a smooth path. He was born with mild-to-moderate hearing loss and used hearing aids as a child. As a teenager, his hearing declined even further and he became a candidate for cochlear implants.
Wittrock’s parents wanted Justin to receive a quality education and be integrated with other school children, so they enrolled him in the Algona schools. Though his hearing loss created a disability, he was still a kid just like the rest of the students in his class and he lived in a hearing world.
It wasn’t always easy, though.
“I was always the kind of person who doesn’t like confrontation, so it was always helpful to have somebody advocate for me,” Justin Wittrock said.
It was his mom who helped him learn what his rights were and how to stand up for himself and his needs, he said.
There were times where he’d need to help a teacher understand why he needed accommodations for his disability — specifically with note-taking.
“I’m more of a lip-reader, so if I’m not looking at the person’s face and lip-reading, a lot of the time I don’t even catch what they’re saying, so I ended up missing out on a lot,” Justin Wittrock said. “And sometimes people would have a hard time understanding why I’d need somebody’s help to take notes for me or why I need to have an interpreter or captioning present there.”
Sometimes, he said, when school staff and administrators did understand why he needed certain accommodations, budgetary restrictions would create another barrier. In college, he said, accommodations were much more readily available.
His education in Algona helped set Wittrock up for success in higher education, as evidenced by his six degrees. Despite spending nearly all his life in the classroom, Wittrock is looking to return to school — either teaching or post-doctoral studies.
He’s already written three peer-reviewed papers and is currently working on his fourth. The first two papers looked at several star systems to see if there’s any known set or companion with a lower-mass star.
“That’s critical because it can impact the hunt for exoplanets,” he said.
The fourth paper is focusing on the research he and a team have been working on related to the AU Microscopii star system located 31.7 lightyears away from our own solar system. Wittrock’s research team is working on validating the existence of an exoplanet within the AU Mic system.
“When you look up at the night sky, you can’t help but wonder what’s really out there,” he said. “You just want to explore. The curiosity is what’s fueled me.”