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Jordan O’Kelley

Cal State LA graduate, Charmaine Chui
Graduating Cal State LA student aspires for a career in astronomy research
West Hollywood author to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics

College of Natural and Social Sciences

College of Natural and Social Sciences

Jordan O’Kelley had made notable strides in the arts by the time he arrived at Cal State LA at the age of 14. He was a published author, had adapted his book for the stage, and was the subject of a documentary produced by his family.

But—having long dreamed of becoming a physicist—his heart belonged to science.

“Math and physics are beautiful in a very unique way where, after studying it a while, it begins to provide a way of understanding the world and everything in it, because most systems are actually just the same idea expressed in a different way,” he said.

O’Kelley, now 19, is graduating from the College of Natural and Social Sciences with a Bachelor of Science in Physics and a minor in mathematics.

O’Kelley grew up in West Hollywood with his parents and younger twin sisters. Identified as gifted and autistic, he and his family have been involved in outreach and advocacy for neurodiverse and gifted education communities.

At 13, he raised funds for the nonprofit organization Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted, by turning a book of real-life stories that he published in the fourth grade into a monologue show. “O’Kelley Legends” premiered at a theatre in Los Angeles.

His family produced a documentary about the show, creating a film that is by and for neurodiverse individuals. When he learned that the Cal State LA Office for Students with Disabilities was hosting programs during Autism Awareness Month in 2023, O’Kelley proposed showing the documentary, “O’Kelley Legends: 2e Behind the Scenes,” on campus.

“Cal State LA is almost a home away from home. It was nice to see a community of people I have been around for so long who were not necessarily part of the film festival crowd, or the neurodiversity crowd, come and see the movie,” he said.

O’Kelley enrolled at Cal State LA through the Early Entrance Program, which accepts qualified students ages 11–15 and is administered by the Honors College.

Going from middle school to college was like jumping from a “hot tub into an ice bath,” said O’Kelley. His first year was the hardest he had ever worked, especially in precalculus with Professor Sam Chyau.

O’Kelley leaned into the work with unshakeable dedication and viewed tackling challenges as a way of refining his skillset for future tasks, said Chyau.

“I recognized this intense drive in his study methods during my extended precalculus-calculus office hours where he would frequently ask me which of the homework questions is the absolute hardest. Without any compunction, he’s quick to attempt these particularly challenging exercises,” said Chyau.

A network of supporters, including Chyau and others on and off campus, helped usher O’Kelley successfully through college.

“I’ve got parents who support me. I had a network of friends who would all study together. I had the Office for Students with Disabilities,” O’Kelley said. “Overall, whatever challenges I had, there was always someone there willing to help me.”

Interested in astronomy, O’Kelley worked with Cal State LA Physics and Astronomy Professor Susan Terebey for about two years researching star and planet formation.

“The research we’re interested in is organic molecules that are important to life. They’re easy to form in space and we’re exploring the idea that these molecules survive throughout the early formation of the star and planets and eventually become incorporated to Earth through comets,” said Terebey.

O’Kelley shared his research at the Cal State LA Annual Student Symposium on Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activities this year and received an Outstanding Oral Presentation Award for his project, “Simulating Organic Molecules in the Protostellar Disk to Understand the Origins of Life.”

In June, O’Kelley is presenting before the American Astronomical Society, an international organization of professional astronomers, astronomy educators, and amateur astronomers.

He has also been preparing for graduate work through U-RISE, a program meant to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in biomedical research leadership positions. It is part of the broader Minority Opportunities in Research programs at Cal State LA.

“It has been my pleasure to work with Jordan throughout the past year. He has enriched our community of Ph.D.-bound students, each selected for their unique abilities to contribute to the larger biomedical research community,” said Krishna Foster, chemistry professor and U-RISE director.

O’Kelley is awaiting responses from Ph.D. programs. He hopes to become a researcher, either at a university or another organization.

“I am primarily interested in astronomy research, particularly in the fields of star formation or multi-messenger astronomy,” he said. “Working on research on campus has gotten me very interested in star formation, which is not something I would have thought too hard about otherwise, so I am very grateful to have had the chance to experience the field and become interested in it.”

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