Junior Physics Major Accepted into Prestigious Research Program in Rome

Molly Williams photo

She failed her first physics test as a freshman and even considered changing her academic major.

Now, just two years later, Eastern Kentucky University junior Molly Williams, of Berea, has been accepted into a prestigious summer program at a university in Rome, Italy, where she will pursue gravitational wave physics research.

“My professors are top-notch,” said Williams, in explaining her dramatic turnaround. “There’s no way I could have gotten very far without all the help they’ve given me. Our department chair, Dr. Jerry Cook, has been great in encouraging me when I wanted to give up. He talked me through a mental breakdown in my first semester of physics. Also, Dr. Jessica Lair has been supportive, and her giving me the opportunity to work as her research assistant has helped me so much.

“The physics department is sort of like a big family … and the professors genuinely care about your success.”

Williams, who commands a 3.9 GPA as a physics and mathematics major at Eastern, will be a research assistant at Sapienza University of Rome – founded in 1303 and the largest university in Europe with more than 147,000 students. The opportunity was made available through the University of Florida International Research Experiences for Undergraduates (IREU) program.

Cook , a former recipient of the Acorn Award for teaching excellence, said many REUs provide significant opportunities for students, but very few allow students to study and do research in Europe. “We have had both the good fortune and the quality of students that have resulted in three of our students studying in Europe over the past three summers. This experience will open doors to Molly by providing her with the opportunity to participate in world-class research and meet and interact with the top professionals in their fields.”

Williams said she is interested in gravitational waves (ripples in space and time caused by massive, accelerating astronomical objects) and their detection because of their applications to both general relativity and astrophysics. She hopes the Rome experience will be a stepping stone to a doctoral degree in astrophysics.

“Graduate schools offering Ph.D.s in physics are generally looking for students who show a dedication to physics research, especially since much of the Ph.D. degree depends on independent research,” Williams said. “Hopefully, with this REU as well as the research work I do under Dr. Lair, I can really amp up my application to graduate school and get into a highly ranked program. Since I’m learning toward doing my Ph.D. work in astrophysics, the research techniques I learn in Rome will aid me in my graduate level research. In turn, it will also help me get a job in research and development at either a large research university or government research facility.”

Williams has always been devoted to her studies, graduating from Madison Southern High School in 2009 with a 4.2 weighted GPA. “However,” she said, “since coming to EKU, I’ve learned that it’s okay to not be perfect all the time. If I get a ‘C’ on a test, it’s no longer the end of the world like it was in high school. I’ve learned that you have to take breaks and relax or you will burn out. I think I’ve also become less obsessive about always having to have a plan. I’ve realized that plans rarely work out the way you want and not being flexible will drive you crazy.”

It’s no surprise, then, that despite the fact the Rome experience meshes perfectly with her academic and career goals, it won’t be all work and no play for Williams this summer.

“I’ve always wanted to travel to Italy and see all the historical monuments, art, and natural beauty,” she said. “This REU provides me the opportunity to spend an entire summer in one of the most fabulous cities in the world doing something I enjoy.”

A member of EKU’s nationally recognized Honors Program and the recipient of a full-tuition scholarship, Williams is also vice president of the Physics Club, a member of Alpha Gamma Delta social sorority, a lab assistant in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and undergraduate research assistant under Lair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“Molly is a well-rounded student with many diverse interests,” Cook said. “Her academic credentials are outstanding and are matched by her service to the university and to the community. Her (application) speaks for itself and would stand out in any grouping. And, believe me, the competition for these positions is fierce.”         

Published on February 23, 2012