January 15, 2020
Claire Baum is from Mount Prospect, Illinois. She holds a BS in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She’s currently in her third year of pursuing a PhD in physics at the University of Chicago. We interviewed her via email about her experiences.
What have you been studying or researching as part of your program?
Down in the sub-basement of the Gordon Center for Integrative Science (GCIS) in the Simon Lab, I’m making “materials made of light” to better understand how bizarre quantum materials work.
Why did you choose the University of Chicago?
I really thought I was going to escape the Midwest for graduate school, but I stuck around largely because of the Simon Lab. A good fit with a research group was my number one criterion when looking at grad schools and I was particularly intrigued by the motivated yet derpy ambiance of the Simon Lab (not to mention the really cool science). I was also really impressed that the Chair of the Department of Physics, Young-Kee Kim, personally Skyped me after I was admitted. None of the other schools I was looking at did something like this and it left an impression on me.
Please describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.
In my second year, I was one of the lead coordinators for the Physics Department’s “Forget the Year.” “Forget the Year” is an annual winter comedy show put on by the second-year physics PhD students—complete with food, drink, and good-hearted professor roasts. Much of the Physics Department attends to enjoy professors performing ridiculous tasks such as seeing which theorist can put on a cleanroom gown the fastest. Organizing “Forget the Year” was one of the most hilariously fun and PTSD-inducing times in grad school and I learned so much more about my peers and the department.
What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?
Lately, I am trying to be more fit so I don’t turn into Jabba the Hutt from all the free food. I’ve really enjoyed UChicago intermural ultimate frisbee and inner tube water polo (come join my team – “Rho Rho Rho Your Boat.” WE NEED PEOPLE.) On my less fit days, I really enjoy game and movie nights, Chinatown karaoke, and admiring my pet gecko, Garrett.
What are your plans post-UChicago?
That is the million-dollar question haha. As of right now, I could see myself pursing a postdoc opportunity in physics or a physics-adjacent field and then going to industry or a startup. There is still so much I’d like to explore, but I want my work to have some sort of application in the foreseeable future.
What support have you received at the UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?
The Robert R. McCormick fellowship and NSF GRFP have been hugely supportive to my research and lifestyle. Aside from monetary support, I’ve received a ton of support from the people here. I’ve really appreciated the Simon Lab members for their kindness and infinite knowledge, the Physics Department for its ambition to create a happy environment, and my friends for their unending emotional support and sass.
If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?
We have a big glass dome building. But in all seriousness, there is a ton of great research going on at UChicago and there are some pretty swanky resources you can utilize as a grad student. Among my favorite resources are the Polsky Exchange (which has a fabrication laboratory that is completely free to use), bountiful free food opportunities, and discounted tickets through the PSD Social Committee to events I probably wouldn’t be going to otherwise!
How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?
During my last two years of undergrad at UIUC, I was president of the Society for Women in Physics (SWIP). At the time, my mantra for SWIP was kind of “Everybody is welcome! More women! Yeah!” but as I continue in grad school I am starting to realize the subtleties that arise when it comes to diversity and inclusion. For example, I am beginning to encounter questions like “what do you do when you’re dealing with conflicting motives?” or “how do you create an environment where everyone has a community they can identify with when there are limited resources?” Sometimes these questions don't have satisfying answers.
I am now helping to organize the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) 2020 at UChicago and am hoping to use the skills I have learned to make it a successful conference.