Sean Bearden's Redemption Road

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

Sean Bearden's Redemption Road

How a prison sentence inspired a young man to pursue physics


Charles Anzalone, University at Buffalo, NY

Sean Bearden is now at the University of California, San Diego, studying condensed matter experimental physics with physicist Dmitri Basov. Photo by Douglas Levere.

Society of Physics Students alum Sean Bearden is an applied mathematics and physics whiz. The recipient of a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship that will exceed $100,000, he studies the properties of spin lasers as a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego.

For Bearden, 30, of Tonawanda, NY, those tremendous scholarly successes are the latest in a sequence of unusual and contrasting events. As a teenager, he dropped out of high school and plead guilty to attempted assault. A more-than-six-year prison term fostered a fascination with quantum mechanics, which led to a renewed “drive” to salvage his life.

“I think Sean Bearden is a story of redemption and how education is the way out of difficult situations,” says Elizabeth A. Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships for the University at Buffalo (UB) in New York.

As an undergraduate at UB, Bearden became a volunteer tutor for other students in the physics department. He brought new life to UB’s SPS chapter as president and mentored other officers. He organized additional activities, such as tutoring and student Q&A sessions with distinguished speakers. He has been a College of Arts and Sciences’ ambassador for physics and mathematics, as well as the public relations officer for the UB Combined Martial Arts Club.

“To see how someone can change his life in this way and become a dedicated physicist is incredible,” wrote one referee judging Bearden’s NSF application. “I am impressed by the change he underwent in his life and believe he would be a great ambassador for the overused sentence, ‘If you believe in yourself, you can do everything.’”

Bearden clearly remembers a substitute fourth-grade teacher at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Tonawanda accusing him of cheating after he solved three-digit multiplication problems in his head. His classmates stood up for him, Bearden says.

“No, no, no,” Bearden remembers them telling the substitute. “He can do that.”

Bearden’s ability to astound those around him continued at Franklin Middle School. “I used to answer things just by looking at the board,” Bearden says. “No work or anything. There was a corner of the board dedicated to the times I was wrong because it was so rare. It wasn’t to belittle me. It was almost a way of teaching me to slow down.”

Junior high was also the time when Bearden’s nonconformity turned dark. On the first day of ninth grade, Bearden left school at lunch with some older kids. “We just walked out of school, and we did it, and then we came back,” Bearden says. “That kind of opened a door to ‘I don’t have to do school anymore.’”

Within a week, he was kicked out of honor’s math. He got expelled from Kenmore East High School before he made it through ninth grade, then was expelled or dropped out of two more alternative high school programs.

By the time he was 17, Bearden was delivering pizzas in North Buffalo, still going down the wrong path. When he was 19, he got into a confrontation at a gas station near his North Buffalo apartment. He pulled out an unregistered handgun and shot the man confronting him when he felt he was “in too deep” and couldn’t get away any other way. He pleaded guilty to attempted assault rather than being charged with attempted murder and in 2005 began an eight-year prison sentence.

In prison he found what he calls a “drive,” a “joy,” or a “groove” that had eluded him throughout his previous life. He read constantly, mostly nonfiction books about science. The more he read, the more he realized those people who had treated him differently were on to something.

“I knew I was gifted in math,” he says. “I knew it. And it was like, ‘What am I going to do with that?’”

His mother told him about his “kooky” great uncle, who wrote extensively about topics such as perpetual motion, which caught Bearden’s attention. The two men started writing back and forth. Bearden became fascinated with quantum mechanics. Exchanging ideas with his uncle, Bearden became absorbed with how this brand of physics seemingly defies conventional logic.

With his passion for chasing knowledge awakening, Bearden earned his associates degree from Ohio University while in Collins Correctional Facility. In 2012 he enrolled in UB to study physics and applied mathematics, surprised that the university accepted him despite his criminal record.

Prison gave Bearden a different perspective than that of the typical freshman, or himself when he was 18 years old, he says. “For me, it’s best to be here now,” he says. “I doubt I would have won any of the scholarships I have won, because I would have wanted to party.”

Professor Igor Zutic invited Bearden to join his theoretical materials science research group after Bearden was the only student who got a perfect score on a test assessing students’ mathematical preparation.
“What sets Sean apart is his unwavering desire to understand novel phenomena and being fearless when it comes to obstacles he has to overcome,” Zutic says. “He is prepared to calmly deal with his own setbacks in tackling a research project, or patiently hone his skills identifying the key questions that he wants to answer.”

Bearden left for the University of California, San Diego, in June to work as a graduate student researcher in condensed matter experimental physics with physicist Dimitri Basov.

Like the Bob Dylan song says, Bearden still feels pressure to serve somebody. But this time, it’s an audience far different from the ones he fiercely defied as a youth.

“People who were watching TV in prison while I was sitting there studying noticed,” says Bearden. “I almost became someone like ‘If you can’t do it, nobody can.’ I had to live up to this to show them they could do something, too.” //

A longer version of this article originally appeared in the UB Reporter. To read the full text, visit

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