Burnsville brothers are academic stars

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2014 - 1:55 PM

Burnsville brothers Michael and Scott Coughlin are serious about science:  one has 39 published works at age 23.

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Brothers Michael and Scott Coughlin outside their Burnsville home. Both have scholarships to study physics.

Photo: MONICA HERNDON • monica.herndon@startribune.com,

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In some ways, brothers Michael and Scott Coughlin are your classic odd couple.

Michael, 23, is intense and introverted, a skilled ballroom dancer as well as a scientist. Scott, 22, is easygoing and social, a sports junkie who often ends sentences with the words “and stuff.”

But the two Burnsville natives have something major in common: a passion for physics. Indeed, their academic accomplishments put them among top scholars in the country, and both are studying gravitational waves as part of the same international research project.

The brothers say collaboration and support for each other, not competition, are key to their success.

“We’re competitive about everything but our academic accomplishments,” said Scott.

Growing up, that included everything from video games to sports.

“Nowadays, that would just set us back,” said Michael. “Each of our successes pushes the other one forward.”

Scott is a recent recipient of a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, which will allow him to earn a Master’s degree studying gravitational wave physics next year at Cardiff University in Wales. He will graduate from Northwestern University, triple majoring in classics, math and economics, this month.

Michael, a 2012 Carleton College grad, is pursuing a physics Ph.D. at Harvard University. Last year, he earned his Master’s at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy as the recipient of a Churchill Scholarship. To date, he’s the author or co-author of 39 publications.

“I think from an early age they both were very good at math and science, naturally talented at it,” mother Lisa Coughlin said.

But Scott said he never would have pursued physics without Michael’s initial interest. Both got their first taste of it by learning a computer program in high school that analyzes data, allowing users to do real and simulated physics experiments. Once Michael got into it, he suggested Scott might enjoy it, too.

“It all started with him,” Scott said. “That was huge for me.”

The path to Fulbright

They aren’t the children of scientists, though their mom did train as a doctor. Father Bill is an attorney and Burnsville City Council member.Still, there was a lot of encouragement of math and science as they were growing up, Michael said.

Bill subscribed to Scientific American and liked to talk about string theory and dark matter with Michael when he was young, but Michael wasn’t interested, Lisa said.

Today, Michael said he loves physics because it allows him “to understand the world and universe around me using the tools available now.”

The purpose of detecting gravitational waves — which so far have never been found — is to learn more about the forces creating them, like black holes and exploding stars, he said.

“I really enjoy working on kind of these big physics experiments,” he said. “Whatever the coolest physics thing is at the time, that’s what I’ll want to work on.”

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