More than just a volleyball player: UMBC’s Ferketic pursues theoretical-physics Ph.D

Emily Ferketic/Photos provided by UMBC

UMBC right-side Emily Ferketic can hit with power. But she also has the power to reach into a black hole. From anywhere. Her sofa. The classroom. The local coffee shop.

No special technology is required. She doesn’t have to say her name backward to get transported to another dimension.

All she needs is a pencil and paper.

As a Ph.D. student in theoretical physics, Ferketic can use mathematical models of physical objects to predict natural phenomena.

“When you can’t touch something, you have to figure it out,” she said. “Everything we do is theoretical because we can’t actually see if it works or not. We just do the math behind it, so, since everything should follow the laws of physics, the math should apply anywhere.”

Ferketic, a product of the Pittsburgh area who has already earned her undergrad degree in physics, is starting her master’s program this fall and also delving into her Ph.D. research. Moreover, she is doing all this while using her fifth and final year of volleyball eligibility at University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Pairing the demands of doctoral research with the rigors of a Division I sport isn’t for the faint of heart. Many schools Ferketic said that she spoke to during her recruiting process wouldn’t allow her to pursue her undergrad degree in physics — let alone work toward a doctorate — while playing volleyball.

But she found a willing partner in UMBC, and she has been able to live out both of her passions.

And do so successfully.

“What is the most math-y of the sciences?”

Ferketic said she always loved math, and she excelled in the subject throughout her schooling. But she needed math to be more than numbers on a page. She needed it to mean something, to have a practical application.

“So I thought, for lack of a better word, what is the most math-y of the sciences?” she said. “And it’s physics. From there, I went, what’s the most math-y field of physics? And it’s theoretical physics. It’s all pen and paper. Everything you do is basically … just applied math.”

Ultimately, Ferketic said she wants to get a government-related job. The Holy Grail would be a position with NASA, what she calls “every physicist’s dream.”

Of all that, she was certain.

Of volleyball, she was less so.

Emily Ferketic celebrates a UMBC point

Ferketic took up the sport in fifth grade at the behest of a friend who happened to be joining the team at the Catholic school they attended. Ferketic hadn’t given the sport much thought, even though her father, John, had played in the Tidewater Volleyball Association beach league in Virginia Beach, Va.

But because she had no other activities outside of school, she said, she decided to give it a try. By the time she reached seventh grade, she caught the eye of the coaches at Avonworth High School, the public school she later would attend. They were all set to outfit her with shoes and a uniform when they discovered she still had one more year of junior high to play.

That was about the time, she said, she had gone through a growth spurt of 5 to 6 inches and sprang to near her current 6-foot-2.

She suddenly began to see the sport’s possibilities. She joined the Pitt Elite club, even competing in camps with the high school-age girls while she was still in junior high.

“That’s when I started to form a love for volleyball,” she said. “I got a lot more (college) interest than I was expecting. As I started touring schools and I saw how close the teams were, I realized this is really something I want to experience, something I really want to be a part of.

“I needed college paid for, and I figured getting it (paid for) academically could have been done, but I wanted to play volleyball. This is what I love. I had this passion for volleyball, and I didn’t want to quit when I went to college.”

UMBC, in addition to accommodating her desired major and her desire to play a sport, offered her the all-important full scholarship. And, almost as crucial, it was close to Washington, D.C., and all those tantalizing government jobs.

Ferketic hit the ground running academically and athletically. Playing right-side hitter, she immediately contributed to the Retrievers, appearing in 13 of 23 matches as a freshman and averaging 1.18 kills per set.

But life was about to deal her an unexpected blow, one that made her “grow up really, really fast.”

In the summer leading up to Ferketic’s sophomore year, her mother, Kim, died of a heart attack. She was only 44 years old.

Suddenly, Ferketic was fielding phone calls inquiring about organ donations. She had to manage the money she inherited. And, somehow, she had to refocus for the fast-approaching school year.

Ferketic admitted she almost gave up. She started talking to her father about possibly taking a gap year. She didn’t think she could continue.

But she couldn’t risk losing her scholarship, and, her father said, it’s not what her mother would have wanted.

“She would have been upset if she was the reason (I) didn’t see this all the way through,” she said.

Partially because of her mother’s untimely death, Ferketic decided she wanted to pursue a doctorate. She had never broached the subject with either of her parents before, but she saw it as a way to honor her mother.

“I feel like she kind of got cheated,” Ferketic said. “She got cheated of a life, and I promised myself that I would do everything I could possibly do to live my life to the fullest, exceed all of her expectations and do everything I could do to make her proud.”

Navigating the post-graduate waters

Ferketic forged ahead with her schooling and her volleyball. She continued to be a valuable cog for the Retrievers, who captured their first America East championship during her sophomore season that almost wasn’t.

She posted 1.74 kills per set, still her personal best. Perhaps her best number during her sophomore year was a 4.0 GPA.

The Retrievers kept rolling, winning America East titles in her junior and senior years, last year under new coach Kasey Crider.

The trick now was how to allow Ferketic to play her fifth year of eligibility while beginning to work toward her Ph.D. in theoretical physics. There were plenty of logistics to consider, foremost being funding.

If financial help came via her volleyball scholarship, that would last only for her final year of playing eligibility. The other option was to become a teaching assistant or research assistant.

Teaching assistant was out because it would require grading tests and other responsibilities that would create too much of a time constraint with volleyball. Research assistant would be her ticket, and Sebastian Deffner, Ph.D., accepted Ferketic into his quantum thermodynamics research group. He would provide a stipend for her to do research, which could be done anywhere and on her own time.

Deffner’s evaluation of Ferketic’s academic merits was not unlike what a coach goes through in recruiting an athlete.

“What is rarely appreciated is the complex decision-making process that professors have to go through when recruiting — or rather adopting — new graduate students into their groups,” Deffner told in an email. “We have to look at these young people that have (figuratively) barely learned how to walk, and we have to assess whether within the next five years they will be able to run by themselves.

“This means that we have to identify potential and gamble on what might be possible. Financially speaking, we are making an investment of $400K to $500K, and we have to hope that it will pay off. We need to find the right kind of people that have the raw talent, the unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the grit to pull through even when it gets rough.

“Do I have a guarantee that Emily has all of that? Well, I hope so, and that’s why I have made the investment. Does it matter that she is an athlete? This, at least, tells me that she does have the grit. She is no stranger to working hard to achieve her goals, and she won’t give up just because the research gets a little more involved, just because she will have to work a lot or just because I will expect more of her than she realizes she can give.”

She and Deffner also devised a way to finagle her class load so she could still take enough credits to meet the requirements to play an NCAA sport but not be overwhelmed. And she has spent a portion of her summer going through the textbooks she will be using during the fall semester so she can preview the material for when she inevitably misses class for a road trip.

“I have to have really good communication with my professors,” said Ferketic, who recently joined Deffner in publishing an article: Boosting thermodynamic performance by bending space-time.

“When you’re doing undergrad, the professors are obligated to accommodate to athletics. But when you’re getting your Ph.D., the professors aren’t concerned about that. So I had to make sure everyone was on the same page.

“When Dr. Deffner was able to find funding for me, that really sealed the deal, and I’m so grateful for that. I’m happy Kasey would take me for another year and is letting me experience all there is to offer in NCAA volleyball. I wanted to see it all the way through.”

Crider said, to Ferketic’s credit, she took the lead in getting all the details of her fifth year hammered out. With financial support coming from her research stipend, she, technically, is a walk-on with the volleyball team.

“She didn’t go to us and say, ‘Can you guys figure this out?’ She did it,” Crider said. “She went to me and went to (Deffner) and we had a couple of brief conversations. I think he was amenable to it, and so was I.

“I didn’t come up with the idea, and Dr. Deffner didn’t come up with the idea. She brought it to both of us.”

All the while becoming a better volleyball player

Perhaps Crider should not have been surprised that Ferketic took the reins in working out the details of her first post-graduate year. A year earlier, she had approached Crider with another initiative.

She wanted to become a more well-rounded volleyball player.

Emily Ferketic

As a tall, left-hander, she said, she was rarely given the opportunity to do anything but hit and block from the right side. She wanted to add some more implements to her toolbox.

“One of the things she did, when I first got here,” Crider said, “she kind of sheepishly was like, ‘Hey, I just want to learn more parts of the game than I have been given the opportunity most of my career. I’ve been told to attack. I’ve been told to block, and that’s it. I don’t get to dig. I don’t get to pass. I don’t get to serve.’ ”

For Crider, who had been the associate head coach at Miami (Fla.) before coming to UMBC, that fit right in with his coaching philosophy that tries to minimize position specialization as much as possible. So he allowed Ferketic to build some of the skills she had been lacking.

She responded last season by playing in a personal-best 26 matches and committing only seven service errors in 92 sets played. In 50 sets the previous season, she had five service errors.

In an October match against New Hampshire, Crider was out of subs, so Ferketic stayed in for all six rotations in the fifth and deciding set. She had an ace, a kill and served the final three points in the Retrievers’ victory. She had three aces in the match, one of her three multi-ace matches for the 2022 season.

“Look, she’s not the best passer in the country. She’s not the best defender in the country,” Crider said. “But she really did improve. I think what that speaks to is, it wasn’t a lazy request. She said I want to learn to play the game and I want to be better in these other areas. And when given the opportunity, she did.”

Volleyball player. Ph.D. student. Home owner.

Yes, there’s still more to Emily Ferketic. In June, she purchased a house next to the UMBC campus — and less than a 40-minute drive from NASA’s headquarters — with some money she inherited from her mother.

Grad students aren’t allowed to live on campus anyway, and, Ferketic reasoned, owning a home then being able to sell it later was a better option than throwing away more than $1,000 in rent every month.

Now she has a convenient base of operations from which to do her research and fulfill her desire to play one final year of volleyball. Crider remains in awe of what Ferketic has been able to pull off in her four years and now heading into a fifth that will make her the first UMBC volleyball athlete to compete while working toward a Ph.D.

“Very few people are (equipped to do both),” he said. “I do think it’s to a specific type of person, a specific level of accomplishment that needs to be had before we can even have that discussion.

“I don’t understand why someone would want to do this unless they had a significant part of their identity rooted in both parts and it was the only way to have a fulfilling experience. This line of study and this sport experience is so fundamental to who she is and who she wants to be that I don’t know if it ever crossed her mind that she wouldn’t do both.”

There could be an undercurrent of unfinished business, too.

Despite winning three consecutive conference titles and the automatic NCAA Tournament berths that came with them, the Retrievers have yet to get past the first round of the tourney. That is Ferketic’s No. 1 goal as she tries to finish her volleyball career with a flourish.

She is hoping that the Retrievers have a tough enough nonconference schedule — including Princeton, Penn State, Virginia and Pitt — and can play well enough in other matches to boost their RPI and, perhaps, avoid a first-round juggernaut. (Their previous three first-round opponents were Penn State, Pitt and Pepperdine.)

“Getting past the first round is something UMBC volleyball has never done,” she said. “That’s a huge goal of ours. I really think we can do it. We lost only one player to graduation, and we’re bringing in four really good freshmen.

“Obviously, we have to win the conference first, but if we get past that and we have a good preseason, our RPI could be high enough where we’re not playing a No. 1-ranked school like Texas or Nebraska. I really think we could get past the first round. That would be the cherry on top of my entire athletic career.”

Talk like that makes Ferketic sound like most other volleyball players, not one who, as Crider jokingly said, we’re all going to be working for some day.

Her success in two demanding endeavors and her perseverance through personal tragedy are not lost on the coach. Though he is entering just his second season with UMBC, he said in the short time he has known Ferketic, she has changed his perspective on the coaching profession.

“This girl is really special, and she has changed me a lot as a coach without meaning to,” he said. “What these kids are capable of and who they can become … my role in that is fundamentally changed because of this one kid.

“Naively as coaches … the paradigm that we frame this experience through is that the athletes are playing for us as coaches. I think through my experience with Emily, you realize we are coaching for them. … Coaches have a really bad habit of thinking of themselves as the main character, the star of the show, and we think of these athletes as the supporting cast in our story. The reality is I’m a supporting character in her story.

“I get to be a footnote in the story of this incredible person who is going to send us to space or solve theoretical physics or whatever in addition to being a pretty good volleyball player, too.”

Emily Ferketic during last year’s senior-day festivities at UMBC

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