University of Rochester

Rochester Review
March-April 2009
Vol. 71, No. 4

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In Review

Student Honors Small Subject, Great Britain Headed to Cambridge as Rochester’s third consecutive Churchill Scholar, Kristin Beck ’09 will research cold atoms and condensed matter. By Kathleen McGarvey

“I like small things,” says Kristin Beck ’09.

She likes them so well, and explores them so successfully, that her work as an undergraduate studying cold atoms, an area of quantum physics, has earned her a Churchill Scholarship to continue her work next year at Cambridge University. Beck is the third Rochester student to earn a Churchill Scholarship in as many years.

A native of Colts Neck, N.J., Beck is the daughter of alumna Loreen Breda Beck ’76 and a double major in physics and mathematics with a music minor.

As a Churchill Scholar, Beck will spend one year working in the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge, using cold atoms—atoms cooled to near the lowest temperatures ever achieved in the lab, to study quantum effects—to model condensed matter. Beck was an undergraduate researcher at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, in Switzerland, and she relishes the opportunity to study abroad again.

“The physics community is made up of international scientists working together,” she says.

Beck has worked in the lab of Nicholas Bigelow, the Lee A. DuBridge Professor of Physics and professor of optics, since 2006. Members of the lab are working to understand the interactions between light and matter, using laser light to manipulate and control atoms.

“You have this little clump of atoms, and when I poke at it with a laser, it reacts like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” Beck explains, translating the group’s highly complicated work into the simplest terms. “How the atoms react to the poke lets you test the predictions of quantum theory.”

In England, Beck will continue to investigate the “cooling and trapping” of atoms, working with Cambridge researcher Michael Köhl, a specialist in quantum optics and cold atoms. She will earn a master’s of philosophy degree in experimental physics at Cambridge. When she returns to the United States, she plans to pursue a doctorate in physics.

In quantum optics she has found a field that satisfies not only her appetite for intellectually challenging questions but also her desire to wrap her hands around a project.

“I’m a crafty person—I like to knit, and crochet, and scrapbook. I’m very hands-on,” she explains.

In one experiment she conducted, she recalls, the humidity of the room affected the crystals she was working with, and she repeatedly had to adjust the physical conditions of the lab.

“It’s the alternation between high-level physics, with these great big questions, and the day-to-day experimental work that really resonates with how I like to operate,” she says.

Physics is not the only field close to Beck’s heart. She is also an enthusiastic musician, and at Cambridge she hopes to maintain the connection with music that she has enjoyed at Rochester as a flute player.

“I love how much music pervades the culture here,” she says. “Great music, great science—it’s a perfect combination.

“My understanding is there’s a vibrant music community at Churchill College, and I’m looking forward to being part of it.”