NSF Grant Supports Alum’s Physics Research

Friday, May 16, 2014 - 8:15am
Phoebe Tengdin ’13 operating an electron beam evaporator. Photo by Meltem Erol

Phoebe Tengdin ‘13 likes things cold … very cold.

That’s because she conducts experiments in a field known as atomic physics and quantum optics, developing systems to study the properties of atoms when they become extremely cold. If all goes according to plan, experimental apparatus that Tengdin is designing and building will be used miles above the Earth on the International Space Station.

She is one of several Mount Holyoke College alumnae who recently received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) award to support her research.

A first-year astronomy class at Mount Holyoke had a big impact on Tengdin, sparking her interest in physics. By the next year, she knew she wanted to major in physics after taking a class with Assistant Professor of Physics Alexi Arango. His research focuses on advancing renewable energy by employing new semiconductors in the production of solar cells. Tengdin helped Arango build his lab and conducted some of the first research in it for her senior honors thesis.

Today, Tengdin is a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at the University of Colorado–Boulder. Her department is collaborating with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to build NASA’s new microgravity laboratory, which is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2016. She is designing and building the experimental apparatus that many scientists will use for their varied experiments.

In addition to conducting research, Tengdin wants her work to have an impact on the community. To that end, she has tutored high school students and plans to host a science project demonstration for middle school students.

“I feel passionate about showing girls more female role models,” she says. “The gender gap in physics is ridiculous. When kids are little, they see math and physics as being masculine. But Mount Holyoke is a great place for going against that.”

—By Ronni Gordon