The Center for Life Beyond Reed

Picture of Moira Gresham '04

Moira Gresham '04

Churchill Scholarship

I am an assistant professor in the department of physics at the University of Michigan and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows. I received my Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology in 2010. As a graduate student, I was supported by a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship. I also received a Masters degree from Cambridge University after completing Part III of the Mathematical Tripos in 2005 as a Churchill Scholar. I will join the physics faculty at Whitman College beginning fall 2011.

I am most interested in fundamental questions within particle physics and cosmology that reach beyond the well-established models in these fields. My recent research has focused on the potential of the Large Hadron Collider to discover new physics in association with the top quark. I have also recently conducted research centered on the very early universe---especially cosmic inflation, the primordial period of rapid expansion postulated in order to explain, among other features, the flatness and large-scale uniformity of the observed universe.

Value of the Churchill Scholarship

Given the choice, I would certainly apply for and accept the Churchill Scholarship again. Generally speaking, I think the cultural experience was worth as much or more than the academic experience.

I would recommend to apply those Reed students who have interest in taking a year to do something a little different while still maintaining an academic life. Indeed, I think it's a very good idea for graduate-school-bound students to take a year doing something a little different before starting graduate school. I've heard the same opinion from many other graduate students. And from what I can tell, the secret to getting through graduate school is having the will to do it; you've got to want to be there or else you're likely to be miserable. I know several graduate students who could have saved themselves a lot of pain by taking a year to reflect on whether they really wanted to go through graduate school. Furthermore, I think that if you're taking the academic path, the year (or two) after finishing an undergraduate education is perhaps the last opportunity to do something not-too-focused without any negative career impact.

Academic Experience

First, a little background: As you may know, Churchill scholars whose specialties are mathematics and theoretical physics complete Part III of the Mathematical Tripos in their tenure. With a few exceptions, scholars in other areas of science complete a research project with an adviser in the relevant department at Cambridge. I think the academic experience of Part III scholars versus other scholars can be quite different. As a theoretical physicist, I completed Part III, so I can speak mostly to that (though I have some impressions about working in other disciplines from talking with other scholars).

Part III is essentially a gateway course for folks who want to pursue a PhD in theoretical physics or mathematics at Cambridge. It has a long tradition and Cambridge is very proud of the program. Part III students take about 6 graduate-level courses (there are almost a hundred courses to choose from) throughout the year. Most courses consist of two to three lectures per week, along with one-hour-per-week optional problems sessions in which graduate students review practice problems handed out during lecture. Students are graded based entirely upon one examination taken in June for each course. Funded PhD positions are then awarded based almost entirely upon Part III exam scores in each sub-field. It seems a horrifying system to me. I'm very glad that I was not competing for a PhD position; most students who were competing were quite stressed and spent crazy numbers of hours (like Reed College kinds of hours) studying. I'd say about 80% of the two hundred Part III students per year come in thinking they want a PhD position, and the number of students who are competitive about getting a PhD position drops by about half each term. Anyway, I was in the favorable position of not worrying about my grades in Part III, so I was able to learn relatively stress-free. And that was great.

Another factor that kept my stress level at Cambridge relatively low was knowing that I had graduate school lined up for the following year. I had applied to graduate schools at the same time that I'd applied for the Churchill Scholarship. And the program I chose had no problem letting me defer matriculation for a year. I think that a lot of graduate schools would allow deferral for the Churchill Scholars program. I would recommend that strong students applying for graduate school also apply for the Churchill Scholarship; there's absolutely no harm in applying for both, and chances are that if a student were to both get into a desirable graduate school and get the Churchill Scholarship, she can have both!

Part III advanced my academic career mostly by giving me a jump-start for graduate school in physics. I took the essential/fundamental theoretical physics courses at Cambridge---General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory---plus a few others. I ended up taking the same courses once I arrived at graduate school. I had a much higher level of understanding for having taken the Cambridge courses, and it probably allowed me to begin research at an earlier stage.

I don't think the Part III credential has made much of a difference in my academic career, though it makes me feel good to have an extra line on my CV. The same probably goes for the Churchill Scholar credential. On the other hand, many academics in mathematics and physics have completed Part III, so they might see that line on my CV and feel some kind of bond with me. A former Churchill Scholar might feel the same bond. That couldn't hurt… I should say that, on the other hand, the Part III credential could make a significant difference for someone interested in getting a position at Cambridge in the future; they love their own kind. I should also say that I was successful in obtaining an NSF graduate research fellowship and a National Defense and Engineering Graduate Fellowship after having accepted the Churchill Scholarship; I have no idea how much the Churchill Scholar credential may have played a role in those successes.

Cultural Experience

You may be aware that Andrew Essin, a Churchill Scholar from Reed the year before me, had a mixed experience. My impression is that Andrew Essin did not thrive as a Churchill Scholar because he didn't focus enough on cultural opportunities. Generally speaking, the Churchill Scholars who took advantage of more of the cultural and social opportunities thrived the most. I think the academic experiences of Churchill Scholars in my year were somewhat hit-and-miss (though overall positive), but even the students who weren't loving the academic experience made up for it by taking advantage of cultural opportunities.

I look back and wish that I'd tried harder to make more British friends, and that I'd tried to join in on more university activities, like joining a university sports team, singing in a choir, or joining a wine and food club. But I enjoyed my time at Cambridge nonetheless. I especially enjoyed going to formal dinners at Churchill College and at the colleges of my friends. I grew fond of the traditional pub lunch on Sundays. I punted down the (river) Cam many times. I took very cheap budget airline flights to places on the continent like Porto, Portugal and Prague, Czech Republic. I could go on…

Another valuable part of my cultural experience was learning about the British education system. For example, the University of Cambridge does not have a campus. It's a collection of colleges---in which students reside, seek tutoring, eat meals, and form their main social networks--and of departments, many of which have a separate building (or collection of buildings) somewhere in the town of Cambridge. Many faculty members at Cambridge are funded through a college, not through a university department. Again, I could go on… I've applied to several postdoctoral positions at Cambridge and at Oxford. I wouldn't have had the confidence to do so if I hadn't spent a year in Cambridge. Or at the very least, I would likely have had no idea what I was potentially getting into if I'd applied without having the Cambridge experience; the university research atmosphere is quite different in the UK as compared to the US.


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