Evan Schneider ’10 Wins NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for Study of Astrophysics

Posted May 12th, 2011 at 1:59 pm.

Evan Schneider '10

Evan Schneider '10

Evan Schneider ’10, of Lynchburg, Va., is one of five Bryn Mawr graduates and alumnae who have been awarded a 2011 Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.  Now a graduate student in astrophysics at the University of Arizona, Schneider plans research into an improved method for detecting black holes that serve as the nuclei of galaxies.

Schneider, who counts herself lucky to have had excellent early training in math and science, is enthusiastic about attracting others to the natural sciences, and part of her interest in astrophysics is the subject’s broad appeal.

“Since deciding to become an astronomer, I have spent countless enjoyable hours introducing friends to pulsars, black holes, exoplanets, and the like—sometimes, friends who had previously expressed little interest in science,” Schenider says. ” One of astronomy’s greatest assets is its unique ability to attract students who typically aren’t drawn to science, and I want to be a part of that.”

Schneider served as an undergraduate tutor in the Bryn Mawr Physics Department, a role that gave her insight into the challenges many young women face in scientific disciplines.

Her students, she says, “were often genuinely interested in the scientific concepts underlying physics, but were terrified of the subject or thought that they were bad at it, simply because their mathematics preparation was inadequate.”

Schneider thinks that women are disproportionately affected by the fear of poor performance because they are less likely to recognize that other students are struggling with the same issues and interpret their difficulty as lack of talent. “The stereotype that women are innately less likely to excel at math, which is still pervasive in our society, only reinforces their discouraging thoughts,” she says.

“When my students got bogged down in math I would remind them that almost everyone shares this difficulty, and that they were capable enough to succeed,” Schneider says. “I think my words of encouragement were just as important as the actual scientific advice I handed out; for many people, women in particular, a little additional support can mean the difference between failure and success.”

Schneider’s research will contribute to a new scientific understanding of the way galaxies are formed; it is only within the last decade or so that astronomers have come to recognize that a high proportion of galaxies contain supermassive black holes. How many of those black holes are actively accreting matter and thus exerting a profound influence on the evolution of the galaxies that host them is a subject of debate. Schneider will help resolve this question by contributing to a more complete survey of such active galactic nuclei.

She thinks that’s pretty cool, and so do a lot of nonscientists.

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