Graduating senior Emily Thompson prepares for a master's degree in particle physics.

Emily Thompson, 2016, will follow her illustrious undergraduate career with a master’s degree at the University of Bonn to pursue particle physics.
Image Credit: Emily Thompson

CLEMSON — Emily Thompson’s sensible flats are firmly planted on terra firma. She’ll graduate in May as one of Clemson’s most-decorated physics undergraduates, racking up honors from a Goldwater Fellowship to an Astronaut Scholarship and “every award available to her at Clemson,” according to Mark Leising, the interim dean of the new College of Science.

But look closer and you’ll see that Emily’s sensibilities are, at times, unconventional. Her personal map is marked by zags where most people would have zigged. She has continually walked out of her relative comfort zone — geographically, socially, academically — and she’s about to do it again.

In April, Emily turned down a highly coveted, highly competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and acceptance into the University of California at Berkeley’s doctoral physics program — which would have been a safe, predictable zig. Instead, she accepted a German Academic Exchange Service award and chose to matriculate at the University of Bonn in Germany. Zag.

Bonn is a train ride away from the European Council for Nuclear Research, a.k.a. CERN, home of the modestly named Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. In 2015, Emily was one of 15 American college students who interned at the pantheon of particle physics. It’s where she wants to start her career. So she could study nine time zones away from CERN or. …

Should Emily take the safe, predictable route? “Or should I do what I want to do, which is take a different, unconventional route, and still do great work, and still make really good connections, but on a path that not a lot of U.S. students take?” she said.

“You’ve only got one life to live. I gotta do what I wanna do, you know?”

Intro to physics

Emily got hooked on physics when she took her first class in high school and the teacher said that physicists can’t explain the mechanics of gravity.

“How do we not know such a basic thing about our universe?” she said.

She aced the class but lacked confidence.

“Everyone said you had to be insanely smart [to do physics], and [that] it was really hard. Even though I knew it wasn’t I didn’t sign up for the next course.”

A teacher helped her change her mind and she aced the next class.

Clemson graduating senior Emily Thompson standing on the Prime Meridian in Wales, where she did research as a sophomore.

After her sophomore year, Emily was a research intern in Wales, where she straddled being an international student, a researcher and the Prime Meridian.
Image Credit: Emily Thompson

Still, Emily was ambivalent and afraid of physics, in large part because she had never met a physicist; she didn’t know what physicists do. Her father works in contract management and her mother works in a family-owned bicycle touring business.

“I wasn’t really gung ho about physics, I just didn’t know what else to do. I just remember being terrified to tell people that I’m going to major in physics,” she said. “I was scared that I would come here (to Clemson) and fail.”

Coming to Clemson

Clemson’s physics undergraduate program is renowned. The students regularly win awards and national scholarships, said Jens Oberheide, a professor in physics and astronomy who shepherds students in the College of Engineering and Science through the awards and scholarships process.

“A good number of students are truly excellent and move on to top-tier physics Ph.D. programs,” Oberheide said. “In my six years at Clemson I would put Emily at the top.”

Emily almost didn’t come to Clemson. She grew up in Rochester, New York.

“I had never heard of Clemson,” she said. “We didn’t watch football.”

But she wanted to experience a different part of the United States, and Clemson kept popping up in online college searches.

“The day I visited it was sunny and beautiful and students were playing Frisbee on Bowman Field,” she said.

So she whittled her choices down to Clemson and a school in New York. “I really wanted to do something different,” she said. “Clemson’s physics department is very small and personal. I knew I wouldn’t get lost in the physics crowd.”

The summer before her freshman year she participated in the five-week Eureka! research program through the Calhoun Honors College and worked with Jian He, associate professor of physics and astronomy.

“Since then, he’s been my main professor to go to,” Emily said. “He’s tutored me in quantum mechanics, he’s loaned me text books and written letters of recommendation for me.”

“Emily is rational enough but also daring enough to turn down an NSF graduate fellowship and an offer from U.C. Berkley,” he said. “This is something we teachers should be, and are, proud of.”

Emily Thompson with Professor Jens Oberheide

Emily credits professors like Jens Oberheide with her undergraduate success.

Emily credits a team of faculty for her success.

Oberheide “helped me get all the awards I won,” she said. “He took the time to explain the awards and what they meant.”

Her academic adviser, Catalina Marinescu, a professor in the department, “really stepped in to help with the grad school application process. She made me apply to really hard schools, like ETH Zürich, and really got me out of my comfort zone.”

When Emily decided she wanted to study particle physics, a program that Clemson doesn’t offer, her professors stepped in and found opportunities for her to get that experience at other schools during the summers.

“I definitely got more than I expected from Clemson,” Emily said. “I knew Clemson was a happy place; I didn’t know I would be this happy.”

Confidence is one of the intangibles rolled up in Emily’s Clemson diploma. For example, her first time traveling alone was for her two-month internship in Wales.

“That was so, so scary,” she said.

Even though she went as part of a group studying in Europe, she was the only student going to Wales. She moved into a dorm with no furnishings, including bed sheets, and no one could help her find a store. It was nightfall, she was alone in a foreign country, and she was scared.

“So I went back to my dorm and slept without sheets. That was rock-bottom,” she said. “After that, it was the best summer of my life.”

The experience “helped me realize, I can be independent. I can be confident in myself and do my own thing and travel by myself and find that fulfilling,” Emily said.

While at Clemson, Emily has worked hard to teach girls and women about science so they might not face the same fears about physics she had and to increase the number of women joining the STEM fields.

All female freshmen at Clemson who major in science or engineering are assigned a female mentor in the same field. In her senior year, Emily mentored more than 20 students.

Emily in Switzerland, with Mt. Blanc behind her, during her internship at CERN.

Emily in Switzerland, with Mt. Blanc behind her, during her internship at CERN.

Through the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, she learned more about a career as a physicist from other students and faculty. She passed that knowledge along when she led physics experiments for middle school girls as part of a WISE outreach program.

Getting more women into science is one of Emily’s long-term goals. Another: discover the secrets of the universe.

“I really like the idea of studying something that, even if there were no humans on Earth, there would still be Higgs-Bosons (the “God particle” discovered at CERN in 2012 that helps explain the beginning of the universe).”

Last summer, in Geneva, Emily took another risk. She and a friend went paragliding from the top of Mount Salève, more than 3,000 feet above the city, with guides who barely spoke English. It’s easy to imagine Emily taking flight, still grounded, but also soaring, leaving behind any doubt about her abilities, courage or future in physics.