A physics student’s aspirations, inspirations

Some people make choosing a career look easy.  Maybe when they were kids, they were diligent managers of a neighborhood lemonade stand, serving sugary yellow liquid to the quarter-laden masses every day for five summers.  These kids grow up to be MBAs or entrepreneurs.  Some bright children spend every waking moment devising contraptions out of any material at hand – Lego blocks, duct tape, cardboard tubes – simply for their own amusement.  They are now the civil engineers and architects of the world.

Some, like Joanna McCall, now 20, just liked to smash things.

“I always wanted to know how things worked.  I would spend days collecting geodes in a creek just to smash them together,” she recalled.

Believe it or not, breaking things to discover what they are and how they are made is the modus operandi of the physicist.  But it took some time before McCall realized her childhood fascination could lead to much more.  Energetic and infinitely curious, she began her studies at DePaul University as a digital cinema major, then switched to anthropology.  She then realized that her childhood urge to learn through exploration still carried over into adulthood, so she decided to become a physics major, with a concentration in geology.

“In the end I just liked [hard] science more than anthropology,” she admitted.  Hard sciences like physics require more hands-on research than the “soft” sciences such as anthropology, sociology, and the like.  McCall’s reasoning was also practical: “That’s just where the jobs are,” she said.

Now about to complete her first full year of physics courses at DePaul, McCall is certain of her future.  Getting to that point involved a great deal of imagination and refusing to stay put.  In her senior year of high school, McCall went on a trip to the Himalayas with a school group, an experience that, for her, solidified her love of exploration.  Then, during a trip to Puerto Rico, her discovery of a lake that glowed with phosphorescent microorganisms piqued her interest in the workings of nature.

She has just begun to take flying lessons, a skill she hopes will help to satiate her thirst for visiting “remote places.”  She talks about her travels and ambitions with a surprisingly casual tone, nonchalantly describing her trek up mountains like it was an ordinary field trip.  It is a testament to her fearlessness that McCall sees this as nothing much, just another experience she will repeat once she is a bona fide researcher.

“My family always loved to travel.  Hopefully when I have a job, I can keep doing that, and maybe take some people with me,” she said.

McCall’s studies have reflected the independence she strives for in her future career.  Geology is not an official concentration in the physics department at DePaul, but the two subjects are delicately entwined.  The Earth is always moving in ways both seen and unseen – tectonic plates, ocean currents, even the planet’s electromagnetic field are in constant flux.  To understand these phenomena through a physicist’s lens, she takes the standard physics courses – one year of classical physics followed by a year of quantum physics – as well as a selection of environmental science and chemistry classes.  She said she often finds the history behind the material just as interesting as the material itself.

“Classical [physics] covers everything discovered before Einstein and relativity,” she explained.  “Then quantum physics came into view and shook everything up.  It completely changed how we think about physics.”

What we know about physics today is largely gleaned from, quite literally, breaking things down.  Our knowledge of the universe depends on understanding how very small things – like atoms or even smaller particles – are influenced by the forces that govern their behavior – like gravity and electromagnetism.  Particle accelerators like the one at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois show researchers what the world is made of by smashing particles together at very high speeds.  The result is a lot of tiny unseen particles flying everywhere, but advanced computer imaging makes puzzle pieces out of subatomic debris.  Knowing how something breaks apart is the first step in knowing how it is put together, and it is this logic – the same logic that drove McCall to smash rocks together as a child – that serves as the groundwork for the most important discoveries in modern physics.

With plans to pursue a graduate’s degree in geology, McCall wants to use her knowledge to continue her lifelong quest for knowledge of the physical world.  Without any specific plans for research after grad school, she is hoping that her skill set, as well as her gender, will get her far in her field.

“I would love to just go to remote places and study geology.  Hopefully being a girl will make it easy to find a job,” she said with a laugh.


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