The University of Chicago Magazine

June 1997


The wide world awaits Churchill scholar

Photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

This year, Michelle Povinelli did what any graduating college student does: pondered her future, weighed her options. The physics major knew she'd eventually go to graduate school but felt tempted to take a year off, maybe teaching high school.

Then in early spring, Povinelli got an offer she couldn't refuse: a letter from the Churchill Foundation told her that she and nine other U.S. seniors graduating in math, science, or engineering had been awarded full-tuition scholarships for a year of study and research in England at Churchill College, Cambridge.

Similar letters were sent to several U of C students in 1997. A Fulbright and two Marshall scholarships went to undergraduates; five more won Mellon fellowships in the humanities; and three physical- and biological-science majors received Goldwater scholarships, helping fund their remaining undergraduate careers (Povinelli herself was a Goldwater recipient). The U of C was also first in the nation in Newcombe doctoral-dissertation fellowships, winning five.

In May, the Magazine sat down with Povinelli to talk about her year in England (she goes abroad in September) and her experiences as a "typical" undergraduate.

What factors do you think were particularly helpful in winning your scholarship?

The application included an essay question entitled something ostentatious like "Brief Autobiography," where you write about your past research interests and anticipated future interests. I've been involved in several research projects and activities in the last four years, and I think that was helpful, as well as letters of recommendations I got from people I worked with on those projects.

What have you heard about the program there?

There are several former Churchill scholars here at the U of C-including my thesis adviser, Sue Coppersmith. She has some funny stories about it being just all too obvious that she was an American and sort of unwittingly committing typical American blunders. Another comment that people have made is that it's considered somewhat garish to act stressed out and overworked over there, whereas here it's considered something of a virtue.But experiencing those kinds of differences is a big reason why I applied in the first place. What does it mean to do science there? What kinds of specific questions are people in your field interested in there? How might you set up your lab or an experiment differently?

What considerations did you weigh in deciding to attend the U of C?

I was looking for an academically rigorous school in a city, a school with a strong physics department that also had a strong liberal-arts program. I've always been interested in a variety of different things, and I didn't want to spend all of my time thinking about math and science.

Did you have a favorite course as an undergraduate?

One of the most, ah, formative classes I took was Honors Analysis. [According to the College course catalog, Honors Analysis 207-208-209 is a "highly theoretical sequence...reserved for the most able students."] It's a really interesting class because it's deliberately much harder than most students would ever feel comfortable with, even the students in the course. And so while you're taking the course, you often don't understand things until much later, you're often behind, you often have more homework than you can possibly do. But in some sense it's kind of an indoctrination into the great big world of math and science.

It makes you realize that no matter how hard something is, there are things that you can do to go about learning it. I'm not sure it's the only way to get that idea across, but I can't deny that it had a big impact on me.

There's been lots of discussion about the dearth of women in physics. Why do you think that continues to be a problem?

I think one reason is that in the physical sciences your performance is constantly being evaluated-you're constantly reminded of how you stack up against other people. So that people who start out with somewhat lower opinions of their abilities are constantly getting signals that could reinforce those perceptions. Like, "I must not be as good at this, I got a B-" or "I can't cut it: So-and-so already knows advanced algebra and I've never had group theory."

Because there are still very few women in the field, a student who is having those kinds of doubts may look around and ask herself, "What am I doing? I don't see that many people who seem to be like me. Maybe I'm not cut out for this." A big reason that you pick a career is how well you feel you fit into that particular environment or mindset, and it's not likely that you'll go through all the work it takes to pursue a science career if you feel you don't fit in.

That's not to say there aren't efforts being made to encourage women to pursue science careers--I've been in some of these programs myself, here and in high school. And in my family it was just considered natural to be interested in science. My father's a NASA engineer, and he always encouraged us to do science. Several of my sisters are also scientists or doctors, so I grew up with plenty of role models.

I'd say one of the reasons I'm in physics is because there aren't many women in the field. It's actually an incentive to do it.

What's the single best piece of advice you could give to high-school seniors thinking about attending the U of C as physics majors?

I'd encourage them to get involved with the research that's going on here. Find out what people are interested in; go to colloquia or lectures; get involved in some of the different science groups who work with kids in the neighborhood.I think that kind of involvement is really important, because while you're developing knowledge and skills in your field, you need to remind yourself why you're doing it in the first place.--Tim Andrew Obermiller

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