By: Don Mock firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2013, Morgan Walker voted herself off the island. That’s not to say she didn’t love growing up on St. George Island, a small community eight miles offshore from Apalachicola, Florida. But if she wanted to get into a major university, it was going to take some effort. Franklin County has a population of 12,000, one traffic light, and not a single Walmart. It’s best known for its oysters and a museum celebrating the life and work of Dr. John Gorrie, the father of modern cryogenics. Morgan’s high school, serving the whole county, had a total of 200 students, spanning four grades. Physics was offered every other year, maybe. When she took it in her junior year, there were six students. There was no AP Chemistry, no AP Calculus, no AP anything – the school just wasn’t big enough.
So Ms. Walker took her destiny into her own hands. At age 16, she got a job clerking at a law firm, bought an old car, and started commuting an hour each way, two nights a week, to take classes at Gulf Coast State College. She also took advantage of a class in College Algebra, offered as a dual-enrollment option at her high school. As part of that math class, Morgan was given the opportunity to tutor other students in her school, which served as a great skill-set and confidence booster. By her senior year, she was more than ready for the outside world. She applied to several universities as a prospective physics major and eventually chose the University of Florida, since it was farther away than Tallahassee and her father was a big Gator fan.
Coming to Gainesville was a big step up from St. George Island, in terms of ‘city’ living. Morgan already knew how to take care of herself – her mother had emphasized self-reliance. She moved into an apartment and quickly immersed herself into university life and academics. By joining the local chapter of the Society of Physics Students in her freshman year, she got to know her fellow physics majors even before she met them in class, making it that much easier to join study groups and get the inside scoop on everything from REUs (Research Experience for Undergraduates) to the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). Now in her senior year, Morgan is affectionately known as the ‘Physics Mom’, helping the younger students learn the ropes and telling people to “clean up your mess" in the student lounge.
Some of Morgan’s favorite university memories include the time that Professor David Tanner moved his Electricity and Magnetism class outside, underneath the giant live oak tree in front of the physics building, on a beautiful autumn day. Another was of working in Dr. Neil Sullivan’s group, where she assisted a graduate student in a study of nuclear quadrupole resonance by building circuits, winding coils, and making crystals. She also spent a summer in Tallahassee at the UF-affiliated National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, performing computer simulations and observing experiments utilizing the world-record 45-tesla hybrid magnet. Now approaching the end of her time at UF, Ms. Walker has been accepted into the graduate program at UC Davis, where she hopes to study condensed matter physics, especially high-temperature superconductors.
But what of that island beginning – did it help or hurt? It probably depends on the individual. If you are reasonably assertive, the resources are out there to make your mark in the world, and you will find people who will gladly help you to achieve your goals. A potential problem for any new undergrad is ‘imposter syndrome’, the feeling that you don’t really deserve to be where you are. For help with that problem, Morgan highly recommends the annual APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. Easy to apply for and open to all genders, these conferences address issues not often dealt with elsewhere, such as work/life balance, how to write resumes, interviewing skills, and, yes, the imposter syndrome. (Thanks for the tip, Physics Mom!) As Morgan relates, “When I interviewed for graduate schools, I worried if I had enough [research] experience. The reality is that they felt I had gotten quite a lot of experience at UF.” As she now heads off into a California sunset, the woman from St. George Island is taking the next big step up in the world. As someone who voted herself off the island, Ms. Walker is certainly doing way better than just surviving.