June 26, 2019

Applied physics major Emma McLaughlin ’20 awarded prestigious Goldwater Scholarship

May 2020 update: Following graduation, Emma McLaughlin ’20 will pursue a Ph.D. in physics at Columbia University. She will focus on theoretical physics research in either stellar magneto-hydrodynamics or lattice quantum chromodynamics. She received an honorable mention for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. 

By Vicki-Ann Downing

Emma McLaughlin ’20 (Oceanside, N.Y.), an applied physics major who plans to earn a doctorate in nuclear theory, is just the third student in Providence College history, and one of only 496 students in the country, to be awarded a Goldwater Scholarship for 2019-20.

McLaughlin will receive $7,500 from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. The award, presented since 1989, is the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in mathematics, natural sciences, and engineering in the United States. PC students were awarded the scholarship in 1991 and 2005.

“In every way, Emma has worked toward her goal of becoming a leader in the field of theoretical physics,” said her academic adviser, Dr. Theresa A. Moreau, assistant professor of physics and department chair. “Inside and outside the classroom, she has sought intellectual challenges that have made great use of her significant intelligence, and she has taken great delight in the process.”

Emma McLaughlin '20 is the first recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship at Providence College since 2005.
Emma McLaughlin ’20 is the first recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship at Providence College since 2005.

McLaughlin is the model of the self-directed student. This summer, you’ll find her at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Lab and Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University, where she is undertaking research with Dr. Scott Pratt, professor of physics.

McLaughlin is there as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates funded by the National Science Foundation, a program she learned about during her first year at PC while attending a Community Undergraduate Women in Physics conference sponsored by the American Physics Society. Her research experience includes a $5,000 stipend. McLaughlin received one last summer, too, for research at Rutgers University.

In her three years at PC, she has worked in the laboratories of three professors, completed an independent study with a fourth, and supplemented her education with courses at Brown University. At the end of August, she’ll begin a semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she will study not physics, but philosophy. That interest was sparked by her Development of Western Civilization courses at PC, where she studied theology and philosophy for the first time.

“I love philosophy,” McLaughlin said. “It often asks the same questions as physics. It’s just a different way of trying to explain our world.”

McLaughlin plans to minor in philosophy. She intends to write her senior thesis on “the relationship between time and theoretical models of physical phenomena.”

After graduation, McLaughlin hopes to enter a Ph.D. program in nuclear theory, concentrating in quantum chromodynamics, the field theory characterizing the nuclear strong force. She would like to teach in a university or work in a government laboratory. She will take the graduate school entrance examination in Copenhagen.

At PC, most students in her science classes are women, but that’s not the case elsewhere.

“As a subfield, nuclear theory has more women than the whole of physics, but physics is only about 10 percent women. We have to work on that,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin wrote her Goldwater application about her summer research in nuclear theory at Rutgers in the summer of 2018. She spent 10 weeks with Dr. Jacquelyn Noronha-Hostler, a professor of physics and astronomy, studying the nuclear strong force. She looked at the fluid characteristics of nuclear matter by calculating the sheer viscosity of the quark-gluon plasma.

Noronha-Hostler suggested McLaughlin apply for the Goldwater Scholarship. When she returned to PC in the fall, Dr. Darra Mulderry, director of national and international fellowships in the Center for Engaged Learning, and Dr. Kathleen A. Cornely, professor of chemistry, guided her through the application process.

McLaughlin took her first physics class as a sophomore at Oceanside High School on Long Island.

“It was my introduction to fundamental particles — quarks,” McLaughlin said. “It interested me. But finding physics research as a high school sophomore is difficult, so I went the biology route.”

Through the College Science Research in High School Program offered by the University of Albany, McLaughlin spent two high school summers in the Morrow Lab, a developmental genetics laboratory at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Her research into DiGeorge Syndrome, in which a portion of the 22nd chromosome is missing from a person’s genetic code, made her one of 300 semi-finalists — from among 1,800 entries — in the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search. She was awarded $1,000 for herself and an additional $1,000 for her school.

McLaughlin chose to attend PC on a full-tuition scholarship in the Liberal Arts Honors Program rather than a large research university. She wanted a Catholic education and was interested in physics and engineering. Large universities had separate schools for each, but at PC she could take courses in both without having to choose between them.

During her first year, McLaughlin joined the lab of physics professor Dr. Stephen J. Mecca ’64, ’66G, & ’19Hon., whose students worked on projects in sanitation, health, and education in countries around the world. She created a computational model of a fog net, a device that uses ether to collect fog and distill it to create useable water. Dr. Mecca was in the process of testing it when he died of pancreatic cancer last year.

For three semesters during her sophomore and junior years, McLaughlin worked in the atomic molecular and optic spectrology lab of Dr. Seth Ashman, assistant professor of physics, studying excited states of atoms and molecules. For the second semester of her junior year, she worked with Rev. Thomas Davenport, O.P., assistant professor of physics, doing computational research in high-energy particle physics. She also completed an independent study with Dr. Erich Gust, assistant professor of physics, who, like Father Davenport, is a theoretical physicist.

Ashman said McLaughlin is one of the top two students he has encountered in nine years of teaching at the college level.

“I could easily envision Emma excelling in a doctoral program and going on to be a top-notch researcher in a national lab or in a professorship position,” Ashman said.

McLaughlin made her academic plans early in her college career. The three-day conference for women in physics, held at Harvard University when she was a first-year student, was her first look at cutting-edge physics research in an R1 research laboratory. The event included talks by faculty and research professionals and information about undergraduate research, graduate schools, and careers. Her sophomore year, she attended the same conference at Columbia University.

McLaughlin learned about the Research Experience for Undergraduates summer programs and about the courses she would need to prepare for a Ph.D. program in nuclear theory.

“I’m blessed that I figured out what I wanted to do pretty quickly as a student, but it’s niche,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a very competitive field. I knew if I wanted to go to graduate school, I needed the best and strongest background I could get.”

At PC, McLaughlin met with Rev. Mark D. Nowel, O.P., dean of undergraduate and graduate studies, to obtain permission to enroll in courses at Brown. She took one course a semester, studying quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and general relativity.

It hasn’t been all academics for McLaughlin. She is a piano and bagpipe player who sings in the Liturgical Choir. She enjoys exploring Providence and ran a half marathon in the spring. She works as a physics tutor in the Office of Academic Services. 

“I’ve received such a great liberal arts education,” McLaughlin said. “I got to attend college with no debt and work at state-of-the-art research institutions. It really has worked out.”

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