Meet physics student, Elise Hinkle

April 21, 2022

Elise Hinkle was born and brought up in Sudbury, Massachusetts. After receiving her bachelor of science degree in mathematical physics from Brown University in 2019, she took a gap year from June 2019 to June 2020 and spent time working in the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) group at Brown University with Professors Meenakshi Narain and Ulrich Heintz.

This is her second year at UChicago pursuing graduate studies in physics and working with Professor Ed Blucher. She is a member of the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) Collaboration. She explained, “We study small, neutral, elementary particles called neutrinos using Liquid Argon Time Projection Chamber (LArTPC) technology. The measurements we’re looking to make have implications for questions such as, ‘Why is there more matter than antimatter in the universe?’” We interviewed Elise about her experiences below.

Elise Hinkle
Elise Hinkle

Why did you choose the University of Chicago?

I was initially attracted to UChicago because of the many professors here who work on interesting research in experimental particle physics. I was also excited at the idea of living in a big city while being close to Fermilab, the site of many neutrino experiments that I was interested in working on. When I visited UChicago, I was further enticed by the welcoming nature of people I met from the department. Also, all the graduate students I spoke with seemed happy and not overworked.

Please describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.

Physics PhD students must complete an experimental requirement, either by taking a class or completing a project with a professor, to advance to candidacy. I chose to complete a project with Professor Sergei Nagaitsev in which we worked to implement a laser inclinometer device to measure micro-seismic ground motion and correct for any resulting instability in instrumentation used for physics experiments.

This project was very different from research I’d done previously, and pandemic restrictions introduced additional challenges. While I ultimately decided to do my thesis work in another research area, this project was extremely gratifying and informs how I go about research in my chosen field. I am proud of myself for pushing out of my comfort zone with this project and trying something new.

What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?

Move! Being active has always been an essential and grounding part of my life. I played soccer and ran track in high school, and I played rugby for my university team. Post-college, I’ve played some pick-up and intramural soccer, but most of my activity has been individual, such as running and weightlifting.

What are your plans post-UChicago?

Currently, I am planning to seek out a postdoctoral research position at a university or national lab. These positions would be stepping stones to an eventual position as a professor at a large research university or a full-time scientist at a national lab. However, if I decide by the end of my PhD that I want to leave academia, I would want to work as a data scientist, possibly in a role focused on sustainability and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

What support have you received at the UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?

Moving to a new city and starting graduate school during a pandemic was, in many ways, a unique experience, but also was one I shared with many other graduate students. While we were not always able to gather in person, being able to connect with other graduate students, especially others who started in 2020, has been an essential part of my experience at UChicago.

Despite having our classes over Zoom, my peers in my physics classes and I were able to virtually collaborate on problem sets and offer each other advice on how to navigate various aspects of starting graduate school. As we’ve been able to gather in person more, I’ve felt that this inter-cohort connection has grown even stronger. I’m extremely grateful that we have found a way to create a supportive community despite the physical isolation that defined the beginning of our grad school experience.

If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?

UChicago is a place full of passionate people doing exciting research in and across a multitude of disciplines. In my experience in the Physical Sciences Division and Department of Physics, there are many resources at all levels (Department, Division, and University) to help graduate students find their place both at the University and after they leave. I also have really enjoyed living in a large city and near a large body of water.

How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?

As a queer person living with mental illness, I have personally found it important to see and meet other people with similar identities who have navigated and are navigating spaces where these identities are underrepresented (i.e. academia). This experience has emphasized to me the importance of working towards the diversification of academia while at the same time making the space more hospitable to those of all marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds.

As an undergraduate, I furthered these goals by working to promote community among women and gender minorities in physics through my participation and leadership in our Physics Women in Science and Engineering group. During my gap year, I helped to analyze and showcase data related to gender and nationality in a large experimental collaboration. As a graduate student, I have been a member and am currently a Physics Cluster Representative for the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT). GRIT is run by UChicago graduate students and is devoted to recruitment and retention of students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in STEM. I have also recently joined the Physics Department Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee, which is focused on identifying and furthering EDI initiatives within the department.

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