SOARS Scholar: Raenessa Walker talks physics hardships and rewarding research
Maryland-born Army brat and Lafayette resident, Raenessa Walker has settled into her new home at LSU as a physics major minoring in math and nuclear science. We sat down with Raenessa to ask about her experience as a first-generation scholar.
Can you describe your experience at LSU Physics & Astronomy in one word?
What sparked your initial interest in physics?
I think it's kind of cliché, but when I was younger, I would look at the stars. My dad and I would look at the stars and we didn't have any access to telescopes or technology. Googling wasn't really what came to mind. You just look up at the stars, there's a star and every so often you point out the phases of the moon too. That's so cool. I never wanted to go to space, I just wanted to observe it. Then I took my first physics class and I really liked it, plus I like math and space, so the most obvious choice for me when combining math and science was physics.
So what do you like/love about LSU Physics & Astronomy?
The community. There's not a lot of physics majors, so I know everyone in my graduating class and below, I know everyone, I know their names, I know what field they want to go into, what specific concentration that they want to pursue. You get to talk to everyone one on one and I really like the close-knit group because of the size of the department, you also get to know all the professors. It’s interesting in the beginning coming from high school, then going to college with all these adults. Technically you're supposed to be an adult, but you're not an adult yet. So it's really nice to grow up in the department and experience college while being around all these professors who can and offer to walk you through more experiences. You have more one on one time with them if you need help. The advisors here are willing to help you work through problems. Everyone is so helpful and wants all of us to succeed. No one's here just to do physics. Everyone has a purpose in the department. And I think that that's really inspirational. It's very motivating.
Have there been any resources at the Department of Physics and Astronomy that you've taken advantage of or wished you taken advantage of?
We have tons of colloquiums that are weekly/monthly talks on research. I think it's really nice to go in person and talk to these professors and their colleagues that are doing research. I wish I would have started trying to go sooner.
The physics library is nice. I was so surprised when I saw it because it is very small. It has a bunch of old books, things like the studies of physics, and then as it progresses throughout the centuries. It also has science articles, journals, published journals, and science magazines. And so they keep it throughout every decade. Sometimes they give out free books. It's just like you can take what you want or what you're interested in. But the physics library has a bunch of books and it has a lot of whiteboards and both of those things are very helpful.
What made you interested in focusing on studying particle physics?
I really like astronomy, but I also wanted to know more about it from the microscopic level since astronomy focuses on very big objects. I wanted to do the opposite of that and focus on the composition of all the big objects and break it down into smaller objects. Particle physics was one of the smallest things.
Describe your current research.
Now, I work with Dr. Matthew Penny and currently we're studying gravitational microlensing, which is basically searching for Exoplanets. It's similar to a solar eclipse. Instead of our sun, it's some other planets’ sun and instead of Earth, it's another planet. And if we're studying certain stars, sometimes we can see a dip in its light’s brightness. And that's how we know that there is something orbiting the star and how we find other planets. I do research to see if we can try to predict when those planets are going to show up when we're studying stars.
How has your experience been as a research assistant? (Things you have learned, tips, advice)
It's interesting in the way that a lot of people say that being a student research assistant is your prologue to being a graduate student because you're going to be a researcher assistant then, but this is your little taste in the water. Why am I studying this one niche thing for this overarching goal and it's barely related. You've clicked on so many links. So it's very hectic. I love it and it's also gratifying. It's also disheartening at times because you'll just get stuck on something and I can't get over this and it crushes your soul. And then eventually you find out you had a typo three months ago and you fix it and everything works perfectly, not perfectly, but you get at least one result. And it's the best feeling ever. It's a never-ending cycle. Never a boring day, always feeling something.
What kept you motivated while pursuing your degree?
I used to think I was very excited to graduate. But I think one of the motivating factors is just my family, like my dad. He was there every step of the way supporting me. So most of my motivation comes from just wanting to share that experience and that joy with him. When I graduate, I want him to be there and I want him to see my accomplishment.
What do you think it means to be a first-generation student?
I think it kind of ties into the pride and the drive that I have to go to school. Even though my graduation feels inevitable now, it hasn’t always. I was always worried about not making it or not progressing enough and succeeding far enough to graduate. I wanted to bring that joy to my family just because I know they didn't have the option or the chance to go to college. Obviously, education has always been a really big part in my family. All of my brothers go to school. Half of it is I want to graduate for my family because I know that would make them proud. And I know that it will be an achievement for all of us. And the other half is knowing that I took all the experiences that my parents had and brought them with me to school, and in a way, they're living through me when I graduate. So that's what makes it our achievement. But I'm just happy to do it myself.
Can you describe the reality of being in physics compared to the stereotypes of physicists?
I think obviously the stereotypical physicist that you're going to think of is a middle aged old white man. I'm sure it was true 50 years ago, and I'm honestly sure it was true five years ago, but it's definitely changing now, even though physics is still a very heavily male dominated field. In my classes now, after all the beginning classes, I am the only black woman, but I wouldn't want to drop out because there's no one else like me. I want to be the person that inspires other black women like me to be physicists, even if they think they don't belong because feeling like you don't belong shouldn't be the one reason why you don't pursue what you want to do. One of the factors in me choosing astrophysics was in 10th grade; I saw Mae Jemison and she's the first black woman to be an astronaut in space. Mae Jemison going to space also wasn't even that far ago. It was in this century. That's too close. And I'm tired of only seeing one, so why not make it two? And if there's two, then maybe there can be three. And so it's definitely changing now. There are definitely a lot more variety in my classes in terms of people. It's definitely not entirely male dominated. All of us have different backgrounds, all of us have different ethnicities. I think it's really nice that we get that diversity in science just because it's so important when it comes to research and making ideas and working with other people. If you have people who look like you and act like you, think like you, you won't get any results. You're all looking for the same thing and no one comes out with anything different. One of the main things though, is not all of us are smart, including me. For some reason, I was crazy enough to think I could do it. I think one of the stereotypes for physics is that it's tough, and I think it's about as tough as people make it out to be. But obviously, if I didn't love it, I wouldn't be here.
Do you have words of advice for incoming and current students that are going into physics?
It is okay to fail. Few students get all A's in their physics courses, and it’s not so much as the grade that you get in the class. But it's more about understanding what the physics is and knowing that this is what you want to study. It’s also okay to be wrong because that's kind of what science is, finding something else to discover. So definitely okay to fail. Just as long as you keep trying.
Any graduation plans? Graduate school, entering the work force?
I graduate this May, so I've already applied to a dozen graduate schools, and the hope is to pursue astronomy. It is a very selective process, but I still want to work in a research institute. And eventually I do want to be a professor. So I figured graduate school would be a very good start just because I want to learn more and I want to become an expert in my field. Then after that, I would like to be a professor and work at a research institute. And I can work on my own projects and I think that would be really fun.
Dream career path or profession?
I want to be the person that works in the computer room with that huge projector on the wall of the Mars rover or something similar. I just want to work on the computer and that doesn't sound fun at all, but it sounds exactly like what I want to do. I want to be coding something and I want to be part of research on other planets and exploring our universe. Every time I think of what I want to do for the rest of my life, it somehow involves that super huge projector and a team of all of us working on this one project that helps us get closer to our research question. And not at all sparkly and colorful. That’s what I want to do, I want to look at pictures.
Feature by Savannah St. Romain, LSU Manship School of Mass Communication.
Contact : Mimi LaValle
LSU Department of Physics & Astronomy