Sophomore Bezawit Kassaye one day wants to own her own business that integrates the fashion industry with technology, which is why she’s double-majoring in computer science and business administration.
But her interest in another subject led her to an opportunity outside the classroom, as she was one of two College of Idaho students to make presentations at the 2022 Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics in January.
“I’ve always loved physics, that’s why I ended up taking the research opportunity,” Kassaye said. “I love physics, I am interested in astronomy, and it integrated computer science with it.”
Kassaye and senior Makenzie Stapley, a math-physics major, each presented on different aspects of the same project: research on star-forming regions within the Milky Way galaxy called Yellowballs that is led by physics professor Dr. Katie Devine. Kassaye’s presentation focused on the distance to the Yellowball regions while Stapley’s presentation focused on the colors. The conference was slated to be an in-person event but was shifted online due to COVID trends. The result was everyone presenting at one virtual conference, rather than multiple regional conferences. The volume of presentations limited the number of interactions, but both students were grateful for the opportunity.
“I feel fortunate that I was able to talk to the women that came by my poster during my time slot,” Stapley said. “I was able to have detailed and valuable discussions about my research with them individually.”
Kassaye pointed out the value of having the opportunity to be involved in such detailed research as an undergraduate.
“I didn’t think I’d be doing research my freshman year or attending a conference (as a sophomore),” she said. “I did not think about it at all until the opportunity was presented to me.”
A unique aspect of the experience is that this conference is geared toward women in physics, which can be a highly male-dominated field.
“It’s not only physics that is a highly male-dominated area or astronomy, but STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in general,” Kassaye said. “It is really empowering and inspiring to see that I’m not alone in this. It’s not just me. There are hundreds of women out there, thousands of women out there, that are experiencing the same thing as I am and, yes, they are successful.”
It’s not only students of a specific field of study who are able to thrive in undergraduate research at the College. While Stapley is majoring in physics, Kassaye isn’t majoring – or even minoring – in the subject. Both are excelling.
“Being part of a research program is obviously great for students who want to go on to do a career centered on physics or astronomy research, but the programming, communication, teamwork, and organizational skills that students gain from astronomy research will be useful in almost any career path,” said Devine. “My hope as a mentor is not to generate a bunch of future research astronomers, but rather to give students from a range of backgrounds an opportunity to gain these valuable skills that they can use in whatever they want to pursue after college. The different approaches that math majors or computer science majors take to problem-solving have really been an asset to my research team.”
Stapley has been heavily involved in Devine’s research at the College and has been a key contributor to research and development of a computer program that led to a grant from NASA.
“I always enjoy speaking with women in STEM, especially in this setting. When a space is full of people with similar backgrounds and struggles, it's safe to have honest conversations about difficult topics,” said Stapley. “The whole weekend was an amazing experience of women building each other up, giving each other advice, and connecting.”
Kassaye would like to have an opportunity to present at an in-person conference in the future.
“This was my first poster-presentation experience,” she said. “I had a really nice experience.”
The College of Idaho has a 131-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition, and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.