College Senior Angela White’s ambitions have taken a turn since high school, when she aimed to become an English teacher or to work in publishing. Now, she studies Physics with a concentration in Astrophysics. Astrophysics is the application of physics and math to explore theories of the very early universe, such as cosmic acceleration, modified gravity and dark matter.
“In astrophysics we think about the big picture,” Angela said. “What first drew me to astrophysics was the scope of its questions, which spans the universe. We ask and seek to answer questions about the origin and behavior of everything in the universe. It is humbling, unsettling, and even comforting sometimes. When life’s challenges seem overwhelming, it helps to think about things on the scale of planets, systems, and galaxies, because it stops me from racing around my own head.”
In high school, Angela participated in the NASA Women in STEM High School Aerospace Scholars Project, working on NASA projects at the Johnson Space Center. As part of the program, she was able to deepen her understanding about NASA programs, and work on projects such as designing her own NASA space mission aimed at sending humans to Mars.
Angela was one of 40 girls chosen to participate the program. During lunch breaks, industry employees were brought in to speak about their professional experience and advise the program participants with regards to career advice. As a result of budget cuts, the program is now defunct, to Angela’s dismay.
As a woman in a primarily male-dominated field, Angela has been inspired by the support of women in the astrophysics community. “I met professor Andrea Liu last year at a Women in Physics luncheon. Her ability to overcome adversity and discrimination to become a prominent physicist and brilliant professor is an inspiration,” Angela said.
Angela expresses frustration with the budget cuts that NASA is consistently faced with. “NASA is always first on the chopping block,” Angela says.
During her sophomore year at Penn, Angela was approached by students in her physics classes to start the Women in Physics Club. She now serves on the board of the club, as well as on the Society of Physics Students Chapter. The clubs facilitate informal discussions and bring in guest speakers such as Millie Dresselhaus, who is known for having spearheaded discoveries in carbon nanoscience.
“There is a perception that academia is the only professional field that people in astrophysics can enter, which is simply not true,” Angela says. “For that reason, we do our best to bring in speakers that have pursued career paths outside of academia.”
In high school, Angela met Stephanie Ferrone, a Navy scientist who came to speak in her Physics course. “ Her projects were so interesting that they inspired me to pursue physics applications in aerospace and defense. She has been a mentor to me since my junior year in high school, offering advice and sharing her experiences by email. I am very excited to have the chance to participate in projects similar to hers at Northrop Grumman,” Angela said.
Angela’s passion for the realm of astrophysics is evident in her voice, her engagement, and her dedication. She looks forward to joining Northrop Grumman Corporation next year, where she will work as a systems engineer with the space group. She worked on radar for the corporation last year. “There is so much more to it than I thought. I worked with senior engineers on updating radar modes,” Angela says. Updating radar modes entails adjusting how radar signals look using simulations. “I was working on the codes for that all summer, and I still feel like I have so much left to learn,” she added.
Among some of her favorite courses at Penn is ENGR105: Introduction to Scientific Computation. “This class taught me MATLAB, a computer programming language, and gave me the skills that led me to my internship and future employment at Northrop Grumman. It was really difficult and time-consuming, but it remains one of my favorite classes because it has proven so useful to me. It also helped me discover my interest in computer programming, and since then I have taken it upon myself to try to learn as many scientific programming languages as I can.”
In addition to her academic pursuits, Angela maintains a great sense of humor as a member of Bloomers. She laughs as she talks about her Halloween costume—Leeloo from the 5th Element and her science fiction and fantasy obsessions: Ender’s Game, and novels by Brandon Sanderson. She even writes her own science fiction and fantasy, but her true passion lies in the art of Zumba, which she hopes to instruct someday. In her free time, she works out, writes fiction, practices her photography skills and plays the piano.