When then-sophomore Meg Stuart approached her physics professor, Soren Sorensen, to discuss his research, she was surprised by his response.
“He said he and his research partner (Assistant Professor Christine Nattrass) had already talked about adding me to the team,” said Stuart, now a junior triple majoring in physics, math, and computer science.
Stuart was excited to know her professors were considering her for their research team—but she didn’t know at the time that it would mean she would be headed to Switzerland this summer to be an on-call hardware expert at the world’s largest science experiment.
The team, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Physics group, is made up of UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers who are part of the collaboration of international physicists working on the ALICE detector at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva.
“Meg brings a lot of enthusiasm to the group,” Nattrass said. “She came up with the idea of going to CERN for the summer and sought her own funding, writing her own proposals. She has a very bright future.”
For Stuart, seeing her research—”a new background subtraction method to find a better way to take the noise out of the data”— in action and experiencing a new academic atmosphere are big draws.
“I’m excited to see the inside of the detector—something tangible behind my research,” she said.
Working on the giant machine also requires special physical training.
“I’ll be doing heights training, confined-space training,” Stuart said. “I’ll be climbing up the detector and replacing electronics.”
She’s also planning on getting a rail pass and traveling on her days off. France and Germany top the list, and she wants to attend some of the numerous music festivals in the Geneva area.
Originally from Johnson City, Tennessee, Stuart graduated from University High School on the campus of East Tennessee State University at sixteen. Her parents are both science-minded—her mother, Mary Williamson, has a background in marine biology and medical research, and her father, Charles Stuart, is a research physician who works at a free medical clinic.
Stuart recently received Chancellor’s Citation Awards for Extraordinary Academic Achievement and Extraordinary Professional Promise. She won best presentation at the American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Duke University, and is an active volunteer with the Society for Physics Students, conducting eye-catching science demonstrations in Market Square and teaching engineering, physics, and chemistry lessons to third- and fourth-graders at Pond Gap Elementary School on Saturdays.
“We try to make as big a scene as possible,” she said. “We want to get kids excited about science and encourage them to join science fields.”
Ironically, Stuart started at UT as an art major, but found “it was too hard.”
At the time, she had recently watched a spate of documentaries about the Big Bang, including Cosmos, and it captivated her attention, she said.
“I am in love with physics. Math is my first love, but physics is my true love.”
Karen Dunlap (865-974-8674, firstname.lastname@example.org)