February 3, 2020
Meg Panetta is from Atlanta, Georgia. She studied physics and astrophysics at Harvard University before obtaining a master’s degree in history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. She is now in her second year of pursuing a PhD in physics. We interviewed her about her experiences below.
What have you been studying or researching as part of your program?
I’m a part of two research groups—one that builds cool things related to quantum computing and the other that works (generally) on making matter out of light. My project involves modeling a particular sort of matter (a topological insulator) with photons and populating it with quantum states using a qubit. We hope that by using systems like this to simulate interesting matter we can learn about less-understood aspects of this matter and build the infrastructure to simulate other matter that hosts behavior that is less well described.
Why did you choose the University of Chicago?
I was impressed by my department’s culture: it seemed particularly welcoming and supportive of students’ success. I wanted my professional scientific training to happen in a place where I felt comfortable and where it seemed like people were excited about community change and about a collective program of inquiry about nature.
Please describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.
I’m a member of the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT), a cross-departmental student group that works to promote equity and inclusion in graduate programs in the PSD, PME, and BSD. We engage in efforts to recruit, retain, and support graduate students from marginalized backgrounds. Our four current teams plan programming that focuses on the issues experienced by and builds community for racial/ethnic minorities, womxn, LGBTQ+ folks, and people with disabilities. GRIT operates with an explicitly and enthusiastically intersectional approach.
GRIT is a great solidarity group for graduate students across the sciences. I have enjoyed being a part of the variety of community events GRIT hosts. I have also been proud and excited to work on initiatives as the GRIT representative for the Physics Department this year. I’m currently working to make sure that diversity-related information, resources, and programming are provided to students admitted to the Physics Department’s Ph.D. program. I’m also working with other GRIT members and Neli Fanning, the PSD’s director of equity, diversity, and inclusion, to put together a recruitment program in which students and faculty travel to speak directly to students at minority-serving colleges and universities.
What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?
I really enjoy reading the literature in history of science. I also knit.
What are your plans post-UChicago?
I don’t know! I’m a second-year Ph.D. student. I would love to work as a professor or as a researcher more generally. I hope to be a leader and a mentor in whatever work I do.
What support have you received at the UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?
When I was considering changing lab groups and research directions, so many faculty members were happy to meet with me to talk about it and encouraging of my interests even if I had no previous background in their areas of research. I emerged from this exploration feeling like I was a part of a warm and friendly community.
If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?
Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask folks about your interests and whether you might participate in their work.
How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?
My background as a white woman raised in the South has illustrated to me the cultural contingency of pressures against following one’s personal ambitions and the way in which one’s layered identities can construct unique social and structural barriers to getting opportunities needed for growth.
I also studied undergraduate physics in a very collaborative culture and experienced how powerful an improvement to creativity, problem-solving, and community it is to work with people who have diverse backgrounds, ways of thinking, and approaches to problems.