Robyn Smith, Physics '15

Robyn Smith, President, WiPS

Please tell us a little about yourself
I am currently a fourth year Physics major in the 5-year/3 co-op plan. I am also pursuing a minor in math and a concentration in astrophysics. I grew up about an hour northwest of Philadelphia in Montgomery County. I’ve always enjoyed reading, playing tennis, sewing, sailing, and playing violin. I was very active in science fair during both middle and high school. In 8th grade, I did my first astronomy project and fell in love with the subject. I received the Delaware Valley Science Fair Scholarship sponsored by Drexel University in the spring of my junior year of high school, and that was how I decided to study physics at Drexel.

What’s your current research project?
I am currently working with Dr. Gordon Richards studying quasars and active galactic nuclei (AGN). AGN are interesting because they are galaxies where the black hole in the center of the galaxy is still growing and accreting matter. Although the black hole itself does not emit light, the matter closest to the black hole is so bright that it can outshine the entire galaxy. The project I’m involved with is interested in examining how we estimate the mass of the central black hole and whether our current mass estimates are biased. As part of this project, we are very interested in the physics that goes on the regions closest to the black hole.
My first research project at Drexel was with Dr. Michael Vogeley as part of the Students Tackling Advanced Research (STAR) Scholars Program during the summer after my freshman year. We were interested in studying the properties of void galaxies, or galaxies located in extremely under dense regions of space. Due to their location, it’s quite likely that they have never interacted with another galaxy, so they are good test cases for how a single galaxy would evolve if there were no other galaxies around to mess it up.

Have you received any awards or scholarships while here at Drexel?
In addition to receiving the Delaware Valley Science Fair Scholarship in 2009, I received the M. Russell Wehr Physics Award in 2013 and 2015, and the Dean's Award for Outstanding Leadership and Service for a Graduating Senior in 2015. I also received an Honorable Mention on the National Science Foundation GRFP.

How was your co-op experience?
Overall, my co-op experience has been fantastic! I spent my first co-op at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. We used brand new radio observations to search for indications of small radio jets in obscured quasars that hadn’t broken out of the host galaxy yet. While at NRAO, I was given the opportunity to visit the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and to spend a week at the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico.
For my second co-op, I moved to London, Ontario in order to work at the University of Western Ontario. I focused on learning how to work with Chandra X-ray Observatory data as part of the larger project examining biases in black hole mass estimates.
I’m currently working for Dr. Gordon Richards here in the Drexel Physics Department.

Were you provided with opportunities to travel?
Yes! A lot! I have traveled extensively for both co-op/research and my involvement in various student organizations.
I am also extremely excited to be going out to Kitt Peak National Observatory for two observing runs with the Bok 2.3 meter telescope during my upcoming third co-op! During my first co-op, I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through my job, I was able to travel to West Virginia and New Mexico. I spent my second co-op living in London, Ontario, Canada. I have presented research from my first two co-ops at conferences in Long Beach, CA, Washington, D.C., Cornell University, and at the University of Maryland.
As an active member of the Drexel Chapter of the Society of Physics Students (SPS), I have gone on group day trips to Washington, D.C. and New York City. I have also attended SPS conferences in Washington, D.C. and Seton Hall University. As part of the Women in Physics Society, I’ve attended the last three CUWiP conferences at Yale, Cornell, and the University of Maryland. As part of the Pennoni Honors College, I also attended the National Collegiate Honors Council Conference in Phoenix, AZ.

Why would you recommend Physics at Drexel for undergraduate school?
I would recommend Physics at Drexel because of the incredible opportunities to explore research, industry, and academia. Even without co-op, the department places a great deal of value on making sure students become involved with the department as soon as possible. Additionally, our department emphasizes computational skills – incoming students are nearly fluent in C++ and Python by the end of freshmen year – which are absolutely essential for any branch of physics. From my interactions with students at other universities, these are skills that don’t seem to be taught thoroughly (or at all) at other universities and really tend to set Drexel’s students apart.

What advice do you have for a high school student looking for an undergraduate program?
Talk to current students at the schools you are considering. They are extremely familiar with their department, both its strengths and weaknesses, and are usually quite forthright about their opinion of the school. If you can’t talk to them in person, email them!