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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Undergraduate Student Spotlight: Laurel White

Laurel White

Posted on: Nov. 24, 2020

A local from upstate New York, Laurel grew up in nearby Liverpool. In her time at Syracuse, Laurel has conducted research in multiple groups and has become an integral part of the physics community through her involvement with the Society of Physics Students (SPS). Laurel is even working as a coach for the department, assisting professors and TAs with the difficult task of virtual teaching.

Although Laurel has thrived as a member of the physics department, she did not begin her undergraduate career here. Laurel came to Syracuse as a medicinal chemistry major. After taking a physics course required for the medicinal chemistry major and meeting other students in the department, Laurel decided to switch majors. This decision would prove to be a wise one, as Laurel has continued to enjoy the physics classes as she has progressed in the completion of her degree. Perhaps most telling of Laurel’s affinity for physics is her experience with upper level Electricity and Magnetism (EM) courses, commonly touted as the most difficult in attaining a physics degree. “I really liked the upper level EM courses,” she recounts after briefly contemplating what her favorite courses at Syracuse have been. If Laurel loves such a difficult set of classes, she definitely made the right decision pursuing a physics degree!

But the correct course of action is never free of obstacles, and Laurel has had to face her fair share at Syracuse. In addition to the stress of normal coursework, Laurel also took on additional work of research in gravitational waves and in building the community of the department through work with SPS. Although these were challenging, Laurel says her biggest challenges came in the times she spent away from the department. Being a local student, Laurel acknowledges that she has spent her life in and around Syracuse. So when she spent a summer at Caltech to do research and a semester abroad in Florence, Laurel felt a deep sense of longing for her home. “Those were honestly really hard, having been here my whole life,” she reminisces. Laurel was also very upset that she could not take any physics courses in Florence! Although they were tough times away from Syracuse, Laurel does not regret the growth and experience she gained from them.

As a senior, Laurel has reflected both on her time at Syracuse’s physics department and is looking forward to what comes next. Laurel has indicated her appreciation for how the department is helping her prepare for the next step; she is currently taking a graduate school prep course offered by Dr. Tomasz Skwarnicki designed to assist the students in every step of the graduate school application process. Laurel has also expressed surprise at how much interaction she had with faculty over her time at Syracuse, and how easy it was to leverage the availability of the faculty into research work.

Laurel’s honors thesis work is being conducted with Dr. Duncan Brown. Her research is centered on parameter estimation; using Bayesian statistics to extract as many physical properties as possible of a neutron star merger, also known as a kilonova. Kilonovae (plural of kilonova) are one of the brightest and most energetic events in the Universe, and they also release powerful gravitational waves. The properties Laurel works to uncover are extracted from the gravitational wave signal detected in the LIGO and Virgo interferometers. Fittingly, Laurel’s previous research with Dr. Peter Saulson worked on characterizing transient noise in the very same detectors she now uses to study kilonovae.

How did a sophomore with only a couple physics courses jump straight into detector characterization research for one of the most precise machines ever built? “I went to the research group descriptions on the website, and I thought gravitational waves sounds pretty cool. So, I just emailed all the professors that were listed under that.” Dr. Saulson responded, and after meeting they figured out a project that Laurel could take on. A great demonstration of both Laurel’s confidence to directly pursue what she wants and how much the faculty interacts with enthusiastic students of the department.

Through her work with Peter, Laurel met another great mentor in Derek Davis, a graduate student who recently defended their PhD and is now a postdoc at Caltech. “Derek and I had a really good working relationship. They were a great mentor to me, and we would go out for lunch and I would get all this advice; even beyond working together.” Not only had Laurel found another great teacher, but she had also found a great friend.

Over the last year, maintaining our relationships has become much more difficult. For Laurel and her fellow seniors, Covid could not have arrived at a worse time. They face the prospect of spending their entire senior year socially isolated from one another and without a graduation ceremony. In addition to the social isolation, their normal academic routine has been completely disrupted. Laurel has expressed gratitude that her research is entirely computational, allowing her to pretty seamlessly transition to working from home on her thesis.

However, she has also expressed a bit of sadness in her classroom and social experiences this semester, “You just go in [to class], sit down, don’t talk to each other, then leave.” The social aspect of being a student that makes class both more interesting and builds understanding through collaborative work with peers has been much diminished in Laurel’s senior year. The Society of Physics Students has tried to continue doing online events, but has had to cancel much of their in-person events. Not all is lost however, as they did manage to organize an apple picking event that maintained social distancing but nonetheless brought the undergrads physically together.

Looking forward to a world after Covid and after her graduation, Laurel is set on pursuing a PhD in either physics or astrophysics. Graduate school is always grueling, but for Laurel, who loves difficult Electricity and Magnetism courses, it will be an environment she can thrive in. Beyond graduate school, Laurel is not yet sure where her path leads. She has expressed an interest in academia, though is not entirely sold on it yet. A career alternative she has considered with interest is one within government organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. Wherever the future takes her, Laurel will be putting her talents for physics and research to good use.