Experiences of a female Physics undergraduate

Written by Grace Chesmore

As a high school senior, I was a major nerd. Like, president of the astronomy club with 7 members, nerd. But I wanted to experience the science for myself. No, sporting the 'Astronomy Club' t-shirt with a Yoda quote on the back simply wasn't enough. I kindly harassed professors at the University of Washington's Astronomy department, and to my surprise, one of them agreed to mentor me. I was trained to operate the telescope at Manatash Ridge Observatory and eventually led tours of the facility! As the mere high school sprout of a scientist that I was, nights at the observatory were thrilling and undergraduate students were celebrities.

Now, I tend to love everything in Physics. But instrumentation and astrophysics have given me that type of passion where other people get a little freaked out, you know what I mean? Like when you get asked about how your sandwich tasted and you end up talking about cosmic inflation? So I figured I should probably stick with it.

"...I'm only a freshman, how could I possibly be useful?"

My fascination for Physics was amplified in college at Santa Clara University (SCCU) located in California. The summer following my freshman year, my first Physics professor, Dr. B, offered me a research position in his photo-voltaic lab. I thought to myself, "but I'm only a freshman, how could I possibly be useful?". Putting those fears aside (just kidding, I was still terrified), I spent the next two years fabricating organic solar cells, and falling in love with research. 

I essentially lived in a clean room, looking at these solar cells under an atomic force microscope (AFM). The clean room was cold, silent, and completely isolated. I honestly kind of loved it, or maybe I just loved the science and as a result I loved the room - we'll never know. Seeing things at the nano-scale (take 1 meter and divide it by 1 billion) captivated me. This fascination lead me to a local AFM startup, where I was soon a collaborator and technical author for the company. Eventually I was even imaging insect silk for biology labs on my campus! They called me 'AFM girl'. At the time, it was the most flattering compliment in the world.

 In the summer of 2016, I accepted a research position in Dr. M's experimental cosmology group at the University of Michigan. There, I investigated properties of the early University via the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Assisting in the construction of a Fourier Transform Spectrometer (FTS), which will be use to calibrate CMB polarization data collected by the Atacama Cosmology Telescope in Chile, I machined and constructed parts of the FTS to improve its functionality and performance. My time spent working in the CMB field solidified my desire for a career of instrumentation in astrophysical research.

"Physics has opened endless doors in my career and I don't plan to close any now."

At least once a month, some responsible looking person (usually over the age of 35 and wearing a sweater) asks me, "So what do you want to do with Physics?", as though I might as well be studying a 5000 year old dead language, or underwater basket weaving. I smile and tell them this, "Do I know where I'll be or what I'll be studying in 5 years? Nope. And isn't that liberating?". Physics has opened endless doors in my career and I don't plan to close any now. One thing is for sure, I will continue to rock t-shirts with Star Wars quotes until the day I die. 


We will be publishing another blog from Grace next month, until then find out more by following her Instagram and checking out her LinkedIn profile.