Mount Holyoke physics professor makes a pitch for president's daughters

This article originally appeared in the November 23, 2011 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Staff Writer

SOUTH HADLEY—It's not every day that college officials get a chance to plug their institutions before the president of the United States.

So when Mount Holyoke College assistant professor Katherine Aidala found herself in line to shake President Barack Obama's hand at the White House last month, she wasn't going to let the opportunity slip by.

"I told him if Sasha and Malia were looking for a small college in the sciences, he should send them to Mount Holyoke," said Aidala, an assistant professor of physics who specializes in the study of nanophysics.

Aidala made the comment about the president's daughters to Obama shortly after he addressed her and 93 other scientists honored for their research and teaching in the early part of their careers.

During a 10-minute talk—after the scientists watched the president's helicopter touch down from a vantage point in the East Wing of the White House—Obama spoke about the importance of education and the "STEM" fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

He also quipped that his daughters like math and science, which opened the door for Aidala's impromptu sales pitch about Mount Holyoke. She said he gave her comment some thought and repeated the name of the college.

The 32-year-old Aidala is making a name for herself in the arenas of research and teaching, which is why Obama tapped her for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their careers.

The White House event also featured a group photo with the president and a ceremony at the Museum of Natural History, in which Aidala gave a brief talk about her work and listened to a keynote speech from John Holdren, the president's science czar. She said it felt like a graduation ceremony.

"It's been a while since I've felt like a kid," said Aidala, who also appears twice in a White House video giving advice to young women scientists.

Aidala said the honor is satisfying because it recognizes both her research and her efforts to mentor and increase the participation of women in science and engineering.

"It was really exciting," Aidala said. "The fact that it acknowledges not only research but also outreach in education is icing on the cake."

The young professor works with undergraduates in the college's Scanning Probe Microscopy Laboratory, where they study a variety of nanoscale systems on the atomic and molecular levels. Aidala's work focuses on how these systems affect solar cells and energy-efficient lighting.

She is especially proud that Mount Holyoke averages about eight graduates a year in physics. Colleges of similar size typically get one or two women graduates in the subject.

PECASE recipients are chosen based on recommendations from 16 federal departments. The departments nominate individuals whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America's pre-eminence in science and engineering.

The National Science Foundation, which nominated Aidala, selected 20 individuals who had first received the agency's Early Career Award, an annual grant that goes to some 500 people each year. In 2010, Aidala landed a five-year, $400,000 grant for her work on solar cells and energy-efficient lighting.

The grant is enabling Aidala to engage students in hands-on research in her lab, and also offer a first-year seminar for science majors and interested nonmajors.

Aidala joined the Mount Holyoke faculty in 2006, after receiving undergraduate degrees in applied physics and psychology from Yale University. She went to graduate school in applied physics at Harvard University, where she also received her doctorate.

Her real training, though, likely began much earlier at home. Aidala said she recently watched her dad, who is an aerospace engineer, explain a physics term while he played a game with her 2-year-old nephew.

"I have to assume I was raised that way, too, where he would explain to me in physics terms," she said.

Aidala is Mount Holyoke's second PECASE recipient. In 2005, Becky Wai-Ling Packard received the honor. Packard is a professor of psychology and education and co-director of the Harriet L. and Paul M. Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts.