Outstanding physics graduate aims to make a difference in STEM inclusivity

By

Dominique Perkins

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Arizona State University’s Lily Whitler is the winner of the Spring 2020 Department of Physics Outstanding Undergraduate Award.

This distinction honors an undergraduate student whose hard work and accomplishments have contributed both to the field of physics and improved the department. Physics faculty, students and staff submit nominations and anecdotal support, and the winner is announced at the Spring Physics Awards Ceremony. This year’s event was held virtually on May 6.

Whitler is a Goldwater Scholar, and she has also received the NASA Space Grant for several years, presented her research at many conferences and participated in National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) around the world.

In addition to her many accomplishments, Whitler also founded the Society for Women in the Physical Sciences (SWiPS), a student- and faculty-led organization that aims to increase diversity and inclusion within higher education in the sciences.

And she is just getting started.

No end in sight 

Whitler said that one of the most surprising lessons she learned during her undergraduate experience was just how much there was to learn.

“The more I learned, the more I’m learning that there’s more out there now,” she said.

“I’ve always liked to learn, and I’ve always been curious,” she said. “But I think that I sort of thought that eventually, I would find an end — and that hasn’t happened.”

Instead of an end, if you get far enough, you find an area that no one has explored before. “So you get to do it,” she said.

Whitler’s curiosity and passion for science and math have always been a part of her makeup, and a host of experiences throughout her early education helped her decide to pursue a career in physics.

In particular, she remembers a middle school science project on the periodic table that captured her attention.

“Something about that made me think, ‘I want to do science forever,’” she said.

During her high school years, the field of physics saw significant breakthroughs that continued to pique her curiosity. Most notably, perhaps, was the discovery and confirmation of the previously theoretical Higgs boson — an elementary particle that helps explain why particles have mass. 

These exciting discoveries solidified her interest in physics, and she began applying to different physics programs. She knew she wanted as many opportunities to participate in research as possible, and ASU turned out to be the perfect fit.

Through the National Science Foundation and the ASU NASA Space Grant, Whitler has participated in undergraduate research experiences around the world, in addition to her work at ASU, including Germany and Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

“I really enjoyed them,” she said of the experiences. “I think they’ve been really important to me developing what I'm interested in, and my approach to science and research and collaboration.”

Her most recent summer research experience yielded her first co-authored paper, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, on May 6.

Whitler spent several weeks at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian examining the early history of the universe — its organization and evolution within the first billion years of existence.

Her paper summarizes the results of her research in re-examining components of existing theories to improve visibility and clarity in galaxy studies.

“That is my first authored publication; I'm excited,” she said.

A wider scope

Her sense that life would never run out of things for her to learn and experience extends well beyond the view through a telescope. International travel, research collaborations and conferences, and day-to-day life in ASU’s dynamic and innovative environment exposed her to a wide range of cultures, viewpoints and scope.

Ongoing involvement with multiple extracurricular activities has been a core piece of Whitler’s undergraduate experience.

ASU’s Sundial Project is a part of the Early Start Program and is dedicated to building an inclusive and supportive community within the physical sciences. Faculty, undergraduate and graduate students participate in leadership and mentorship programs, career and networking workshops and practical training in the practice of professional, scientific research.

ASU also has a thriving chapter of the Society of Physics Students, a professional association designed to support students and faculty across the country who are passionate about the physical sciences. ASU members hold regular events, help to mentor incoming students and participate in outreach activities within the community.

“I’ve been involved with Sundial, and with the Society of Physics Students, for almost my entire time here,” she said. “And so that’s exposed me to things like outreach, and science education, and the mentoring community of Sundial that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise. And I think those things have been very influential, and really important to my development not only as a scientist but as a well-rounded human being.”

Video of Easy Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream Recipe: Today I Learned: Arizona State University (ASU)

Building on this experience, Whitler saw an opportunity to meet an additional need and started a new organization: the Society for Women in the Physical Sciences.

“We didn't have a group specifically for women in physical science, and I think there are shared experiences for us,” she said.

Her personal experiences lined up with conversations she had with faculty mentors in the Department of Physics, such as Anna Zaniewski, associate instructional professional, Kelli Gamez Warble, senior instructional professional, and Associate Professor Cynthia Keeler.

“That made me think that even though there are already these amazing extracurricular groups, we would still benefit from having a space dedicated to this,” she said.

The organization is open to anyone who would like to join and held its opening event, a liquid nitrogen ice cream social, on February 21.

So, what’s next?

Her community involvement experiences while at ASU have helped shape Whitler’s vision of her future.

“In grad school, I really want to stay involved in outreach and education, and particularly underrepresented minorities in STEM,” she said.

In the fall, Whitler will begin her graduate studies at the University of Arizona, where she is eager to continue her work, unraveling the transformation of the early universe.

She is particularly excited about the chance to work with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2021.

“Fingers crossed, I don't want to jinx it,” she said.

After graduate school, Whitler plans to continue a career in academia, where she hopes she can pay forward some of the valuable mentoring she has received during her undergraduate journey.

“I like the idea of mentoring others, mentoring younger people who are earlier on in their career path because I've had really, really good mentors, and I know how influential they have been,” she said. “So, I would like to be that person for someone else.”

Her advice to new students is to make use of every possible opportunity available.

“There are a lot of chances to figure out what you enjoy, and what you like, and what you're interested in,” she said. “Do that as best you can, and it will set you up for your future, and also you’ll just have fun.