Alumni say Whiteman Fellowship Gave Them the Freedom to Explore

Categories: Alumni

Read this at Spectrum

A paleomagnetist who studies the magnetic properties of ancient meteorites for insights into the genesis of our solar system, Clara Maurel PhD ’21 credits the Whiteman Fellowship she held as a graduate student at MIT with helping shape the direction of her research.

“The reason I had so much freedom to explore the questions I thought were the most interesting early in my PhD is because I had the fellowship,” says Maurel, a Whiteman Fellow in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) in 2017–2018. Today, Maurel is a postdoctoral researcher at the European Center for Research and Education in Environmental Geosciences, in Aix-en-Provence, France.

“Currently, I am working on a very old meteorite that may preserve the record of the earliest magnetic field that existed in the solar system,” she says. “What excites me most is working with amazing objects that existed 4.5 billion years ago, before the planets were formed, which I can take in my hands to study.”

“A very important bridge at a critical time”

Maurel is echoed by other Whiteman alumni who say the graduate fellowship’s crucial support helped plot the trajectory of their careers. “The Whiteman Fellowship gave me a very important bridge at a critical time,” says Marjorie Cantine PhD ’21, who held the fellowship in EAPS in 2016–2017 and is now a postdoc at the Frankfurt Isotope and Element Research Center at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany. There, she says, her work laser-dating carbonate rocks formed 500 million years ago “has the potential to help us understand the history of life and our planet in more detail than ever before.”

The Whiteman Graduate Fellowships in Astrophysics and in EAPS at MIT were created by George Elbaum ’59, SM ’63, PhD ’67 and his wife, Mimi Jensen, and named for Elbaum’s mother, Pauline Whiteman, who saved her son’s life by smuggling him out of the Warsaw Ghetto as a child during the Holocaust. Now in its 20th year, the Whiteman Fellowship in Astrophysics has been awarded 92 times to graduate students. The Whiteman Fellowship in EAPS, established in 2013, has been awarded 17 times.

“The Whiteman Fellowship gave me the freedom to take the leap and go for the project that really excited me in graduate school,” says Sarah Trowbridge Heine ’08, PhD ’14, an astrophysics fellow in 2008–2009. “I worked on Micro-X, a sounding rocket payload carrying an array of microcalorimeters, which measure the energy of incoming light very precisely. It was an extremely challenging instrumentation project. After my first year working on Micro-X, I knew it was the path for me.”

Now a research scientist with the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, Heine helps develop technology for X-ray astrophysics. One of her projects is a NASA-funded sounding rocket payload called REDSoX (Rocket Experiment Demonstration of a Soft X-ray Polarimeter) that will measure the polarization of X-rays from astrophysical sources such as neutron stars and black holes as a function of energy, she explains.

“Scientifically, every time we build a better detector, we learn something new and unexpected,” she says. “Astrophysical systems are some of the most extreme places in the universe and offer the opportunity to study both the systems themselves and the underlying basic physics driving those systems that can’t be replicated experimentally on Earth.”

Supporting a transition, encouraging exploration

Margaret Duffy PhD ’21, the Whiteman Fellow in EAPS in 2016–2017, says she started graduate school at MIT in oceanography but through her coursework realized she wanted to focus her research on the atmosphere. “This meant making a pretty big transition, including switching projects and advisors,” Duffy says. “The Whiteman Fellowship funded me during that transition and allowed me to become an atmospheric dynamicist, which I am now.”

A postdoc at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, Duffy describes her investigations into climate change and the dynamics of the atmosphere as “both exciting and scary.” Her current research into what is called cloud feedback aims for a better understanding of how the Earth’s climate responds to manmade emissions, with the hope of constraining warming seen accompanying an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“The Whiteman Fellowship gave me the opportunity during my first year at MIT to carefully consider the type of research I wanted to pursue,” says Barak Schmookler PhD ’18, who held the fellowship in particle physics in 2012. His research into the underlying structure of protons and neutrons aims to “deepen our understanding of how the fundamental particles and forces create the visible matter that we interact with in our daily lives,” says the assistant project scientist at University of California, Riverside.

“In my current position, I work with many students, both graduate and undergraduate,” Schmookler says. “My time at MIT taught me that students need both guidance on their research as well as the freedom to pursue the work that most interests them.”