November STEM Star: Annie Stephenson

Meet, Annie Stephenson our November Physics STEM Star! A current PhD Candidate in Applied Physics at Harvard University, she is a the perfect person to talk to us about the current state of physics and where the field is heading.

  1. When did your interest in physics first start?

Early in elementary school, I was fascinated by space and its enormity. A couple of years later, my class read an article about special relativity, and I was blown away. I liked the way physics made me question my views.

  1. Could you give us an overview of your current work in physics?

I study structural color, which is color that comes not from absorption like in most dyes and paints, but from the interference of light scattered from nanoscale structures. Structural color can be found throughout nature in birds, butterflies, and even plants, but my lab focuses on making structural color using assemblies of nanoscale spheres that we can make in the lab. We combine models and experiments to help us understand the fundamental physics that gives rise to the colors of these materials.

  1. What is your typical day like?

My days vary largely. In the roughly two years that I’ve been in grad school, my typical day has completely changed every few months. Here, I’ll try to describe a day that includes a bit of everything. I’ll grab coffee on my walk to lab, and I may spend the morning making some samples. While I wait for them to cure, I’ll work on some code, slides for a presentation or read papers. Then I’ll go to lunch followed by class, and in the afternoon I’ll measure the samples. After that, if it’s not too late, I might start to analyze the data and plan my experiments for the next day.

  1. What areas of physics or current research projects interest you most?

Interdisciplinary fields such as biophysics and soft matter (the physics of squishy things) are interesting to me because they require creative thinking by putting together many different areas of knowledge. In particular, I think projects involving self-assembly are exciting because they have the potential to change the way we create complex systems, like the ones I work with in structural color.

I also find the research at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) fascinating, with the detection of gravitational waves being one of the most exciting discoveries of our time.  

  1. Can you describe a physics project you are most proud to have contributed?don

So far, I’m most proud of my contributions to a light scattering model that my lab has developed. To take part in creating something that can predict some of the measurements we observe in our lab is really exciting.

  1. What are some common misconceptions you think people typically have about physics?

While flying on a plane, hunched over my tray table struggling with a problem from my quantum mechanics class in my first semester of grad school, a flight attendant walked by and asked what I was working on. I told her it what it was, and she was impressed. She told me that I must be so smart, that this must be so easy for me, and that she had never been good at math.

It was a strange feeling to be told these things, because for the past few months I had been feeling like I was the dumbest person in every classroom I sat in. I’ve never found math and physics easy, and starting grad school at Harvard was incredibly intimidating. I think there is a misconception that you have to be a genius to become a physicist. In reality, my getting into grad school in physics was largely due to luck, great mentorship, and hard work.

  1. How can kids who have an interest in physics learn more about the field?

There are so many great resources to learn about physics today. I think Youtube and Wikipedia are a great way to browse different topics and see what interests you, and from there you can look for books on those topics learn more.

To learn more about cutting-edge research, there are a number of websites that post articles summarizing both classic and recent research papers in different fields. For astrophysics, there is, for particle physics there is, and for soft matter physics, there will soon be, which I’m working on launching with a team of graduate students and postdocs around the world.  

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