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Student is seeing stars - and other celestial bodies

3/25/2008

She’s bubbly, she’s blonde—and she’s brainy.

In elementary school, her goal was not to become a nurse or teacher or Miss America. Rather, Betsy Hall of Fort Meyers, Fla., aspired to be an astronaut.
Now in a few weeks, Hall will graduate summa cum laude from Austin Peay State University with a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy.
She's bubbly, she's blonde—and she's brainy.

In elementary school, her goal was not to become a nurse or teacher or Miss America. Rather, Betsy Hall of Fort Meyers, Fla., aspired to be an astronaut.
Now in a few weeks, Hall will graduate summa cum laude from Austin Peay State University with a bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy.

How did this beauty from the Sunshine State end up at APSU? Wanting a break after her freshman year at the Florida Institute of Technology, Hall came to visit a friend in Clarksville. And instead of returning to the Florida Institute of Technology, Hall transferred to APSU.

Three years later, no regrets. “The physics department here is amazing,” she says. “Students get individual attention from professors who are interested in them and want them to succeed.

“Dr. (Jaime) Taylor pushed me to achieve. I've had opportunities I never would have had, if it weren't for the faculty here who believed in me and pushed me to reach my full potential. Whenever I doubted myself, Dr. Taylor kept saying, ‘you can do this.'”

During Hall's first year at APSU, Taylor, professor and chair of the physics and astronomy department, began encouraging her to apply for a summer research fellowship at Cornell University, a private university in Ithaca, N.Y. “Apply, apply, apply,” she says, with a smile. “Every time I saw him, he was telling me to apply.”

She did—and was accepted by the prestigious Ivy League university. Hall spent Summer 2006 at Cornell, working with the Center for Nanoscale Systems and manipulating optical fibers or lasers and lenses. “I learned at Cornell how much research experience counts,” she says.

She spent Summer 2007 in Orlando, after receiving a research position at the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida. Again, she received a stipend and funding for her research in optics and photonics from the National Science Foundation.

During Fall 2007, Hall had the opportunity to conduct research at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. It was the first time ever that the program had interns for the fall semester. Hall was one of only two accepted, with the other from the University of Texas, Austin. Hall received free tuition and a $7,500 stipend for 15 weeks of research.

At JPL, Hall worked with Dr. Amy Mainzer, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) deputy project scientist. Under Mainzer's supervision, Hall was charged with characterizing infrared detectors that will be implemented into WISE, NASA's latest infrared space telescope. Scheduled to launch in 2009, WISE will survey the sky with sensitivity never before achieved.

According to Hall, the semester at JPL was a dream come true. “My heroes are scientists,” she says. “One day at JPL, I looked around and realized I was sitting in a room full of astrophysicists. They were talking about the origin of the universe, about how to make a planet—and I was right there with them. It was amazing.”

Speaking of the research opportunities Hall has enjoyed as an undergraduate, Taylor says, “Participation in these programs, coupled with the education she is getting at APSU, Betsy will be able to do whatever she wants when she graduates in May.”

Her friend and mentor is right. Back at APSU for her final semester, Hall is looking forward to her future. And what a promising future she has!

She has been accepted into two of the nation's top three graduate programs in optics and photonics—the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Optics and the University of Central Florida. Both are offering full tuition and a healthy stipend. “It's great to get paid to go to school—being paid to use my brain,” she says with a laugh.

Her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut has evolved into a deep desire to teach and do research. This semester, she's spending her “free” time in Austin Peay's Academic Support Center, tutoring students struggling with physics and math.

“I've had some great professors, some wonderful mentors,” she says. “When I was at Cornell—that was the first time I started thinking that maybe I really could get my Ph.D.

“And after I get my doctorate, I want to stay in academia. I want to be a professor, a scientist. I want to do research. I want to teach and touch other lives.”

For more information about the APSU Department of Physics and Astronomy, go to the Index on the homepage, www.apsu.edu, and click on physics. -- Dennie B. Burke