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Astrophysics and Activism

First-year student’s passion for physics and social justice propel him to become a force of nature in tackling universal problems.

Ruell Branch being interviewed by a reporter.

As Ruell Branch begins his first year of college, he has two dreams for the futureto have a career as a scientist and to live in a world that embraces the principles of social justice. To achieve the former, he plans to study physics. For the latter, he has a head start. He spent the last few months establishing himself as leader in the Black Lives Matter youth movement in his hometown of Syracuse. Branch is looking to Syracuse University for the tools he’ll need to reach the goals he’s set for himself. 

“I think Syracuse University is very supportive of students who want to actively voice their opinions on justice and equality,” he says. “If I could contribute to one major change in my lifetime, it definitely would be social justice and racial equality for the Black community.”

Discovering the Power of Protest  

Branch is the co-founder of CuseYouth Black Lives Matter, a chapter of the Black Lives Matter movementBranch and fellow Henninger High School senior Shakira Neal created the organization to protest police brutality in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  

“After George Floyd became national news, I texted Shakira and said we should start something here with just high school students,” Branch remembers. “I felt like that would be powerful.” A group chat with other organizers led to an Instagram page, and “that page just blew up,” he says. “We got 5,000 followers immediately.” 

In early June, the group organized a march of more than 1,000 protesters. Branch’s father, Craig Branch, helped them secure a permit for the rally, which began in downtown Syracuse’s Clinton Square and wound through the Strathmore neighborhood and the city’s Near West Side. “We had members helping with donations. We had interviews. People saw me on the news and knew I helped coordinate the march. It felt good knowing that I could help to bring the community together,” Branch says. 

We had members helping with donations. We had interviews. People saw me on the news and knew I helped coordinate the march. It felt good knowing that I could help to bring the community together.

Becoming a Youth Leader 

Public speaking didn’t come naturally to the soft-spoken 17-year-old, but he says that when he had to speak to a crowd of thousands in front of City Hall, “Something changed me. I had only basic leadership skills, but I had to take on the role of planning, posting to social media and asking people for donations.” The group came up with a list of demands that included increased transparency in the City of Syracuse’s officer hiring practices and removing police officers from Syracuse public schools.  

Keeping the public protest from getting out of control was foremost on his mind. “We told people on social media that this is a peaceful protest, and after promoting it that way, we kept an eye out to make sure that nothing got crazy,” Branch says. When the march was over, the group gathered to read poems and listen to music.  

Finding an Academic Calling

Ruell Branch stands in front of Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs looking up at the stone pillars that flank the main entrance.
Ruell Branch became interested in physics when he enrolled in a Syracuse University science program for high school students.

Branch’s passion for science began in high school and led to his first experience with Syracuse University. “I took physics in tenth grade, followed by SUPA physics,” he explains. Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA) is a concurrent enrollment program that gives qualified high school seniors the opportunity to enroll in Syracuse University classes for credit. It was an experience that gave Branch a new direction. “I said okay, this is what I want to do.” 

He intends to major in physics with a goal of expanding his own knowledge as well as contributing to the field through research. “The universe is so big and unknown, and because we don’t know everything about it, I feel like it’s possible that the answers could be in my brain somewhere,” he says. “I’m definitely looking at a branch of astrophysics. I find gravitational waves fascinating.”  

Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences is the right place for himit’s the home of the Astrophysics and Surface Science Research Laboratory and research groups that tackle topics like gravitational wave astronomy, experimental astrophysics and computational physics. In fact, a team of Syracuse University physicists was instrumental in the 2015 discovery of gravitational waves that Albert Einstein predicted in his 1915 general theory of relativity.  

Choosing Syracuse University

Ruell Branch with back to camera outside an academic building.

When he first told his parents that he wanted to attend Syracuse University, Branch says they breathed a huge sigh of relief. “My parents were really, really excitedOne of the positive things about COVID-19 is that I definitely got closer to my family,” he explains. “As a senior in high school, I was growing up and distancing myself from them, but since we had to stay home, we all sat down and talked a lot more and found common interests. I applied to a bunch of other schools, but I’ve always idolized the University and knew in my heart that this was the school I wanted.”  

For Branch, the Syracuse University campus is already starting to feel like home.  “I have tons of friends who have chosen Syracuse University, and it’s definitely a warm feeling knowing that if I have a problem I can just go to them.” He knows he has much to look forward to as his college journey begins. “Meeting new people and studying abroad in Africa or London will mean a lot. My dad graduated from Colgate, but other than him I’ll be the first on both sides of my family to graduate from college. Walking across that stage in four years to get my diploma—that will just fill my heart.” 

Mary Beth Horsington

This story was published on .


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