Meet Rachael Merritt: B.S. Physics, B.A. Astronomy, B.A. Classics '15 and M.S. Physics '17
Why did you decide to major in the Department of Physics and Astronomy?
The astronomy major had just started when I arrived at Wayne. The prospect of being able to make my own path and to have a role in shaping things for future majors was extremely appealing! I also visited campus before I enrolled. Meeting with Professor Cinabro and hearing more about the department and the planetarium really sealed my decision.
What did you do after you graduated? Did you go to graduate school or get a job?
Following my M.S., I started my Ph.D. in Astronomy at Georgia State University, which I completed in 2022. I am currently a National Science Foundation MPS-Ascend Postdoctoral Fellow working in the physics education research group at the University of Colorado Boulder. My research focuses on course-based undergraduate research experiences or CUREs.
How did your major prepare you for your career or graduate school?
I double majored in physics and astronomy, so I took all of the courses for both majors. Because of this, I had a lot more background knowledge than some of my colleagues when I started my Ph.D. coursework. The variety of assessments used in the curriculum (traditional homework and exams, projects, presentations) also prepared me for my graduate courses. Outside of coursework, the confidence that I gained throughout the program really served me well when I needed to ask questions or ask for help during my Ph.D.
Who was your favorite professor and why?
I don't think I can pick a favorite! I have so many good memories with so many of the faculty members. Professor Cackett was with me through every step of my academic journey - teaching my first non-intro physics class as an undergrad, being my master's advisor, and being a member of my Ph.D. dissertation committee. Professor Gavin always had an open door and Coke Zero ready for a chat. Professor Pruneau was the planetarium director when I first started at Wayne State and my time in the planetarium has had such an impact on my career trajectory. Professor Majumder got me through some of my more difficult classes with his sharp wit and willingness to give me candy when I would come to his office for homework help. I feel so fortunate to have been "brought up" in such a supportive academic environment because it really helped me find and grow my confidence as a scientist.
Did you do research? If so, what skills did it give you?
I participated in a research experience for undergraduates (REU) and was able to continue research through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). I was able to learn many of the technical skills that I needed to complete my graduate work. It also was helpful in expanding my horizons for the types of research that are out there. As an undergraduate, in addition to astronomy research, I also worked on an electronics fabrication project for the Belle II experiment. While I may personally never want to solder again, it gave me a real appreciation for the people who do focus on hardware and instrumentation!
What was your favorite thing about the department?
The people! In addition to the support that I received from the faculty, I also have received so much support and encouragement from the department staff. From working with Dawn in the planetarium and as the undergraduate advisor to stopping up in De's office for a pep talk when I was having a rough day, the people in the department are just great! And honestly, I could not have gotten to this point without their support.
What advice would you give to current students?
Show up! Show up for office hours, colloquia and seminars, department events! Join department (and university) organizations! Show up and make space for yourself in the department because those relationships are valuable and rewarding. In addition to the great relationships I have with the faculty and staff, I met my best friend of 12 years (and counting!) because we ended up at our intro physics TA's office hour at the same time. You also never know what will happen because you showed up for something. I went to a PAN seminar in 2014 and then attended a student event with the speaker afterward. When I was applying to Ph.D. programs in the fall of 2016, I reached out to that speaker saying I wasn't sure if she remembered me but I was applying to their institution and wanted to see if she was taking students. She did remember me and ended up becoming my Ph.D. advisor. So show up and get as much as you can out of your experience!