Undergraduate Researcher Profile: Kaitlin Hellier (Physics)

Katie Hellier's route to physics was non-traditional. Born and raised in the East Bay, after graduating early from high school, she earned her associates degree at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising while working at a restaurant.  After finishing her degree, she applied for multiple positions in the fashion industry but was unable to compete with more experienced professionals during the recession.  She then started working full-time as a restaurant manager, and after a few years decided to go back to school to study math, which she had always enjoyed and excelled at.

Community College and Introduction to Physics

When Katie began classes at Los Medanos Community College in Pittsburg, she dove right into calculus, which she hadn’t taken in 5 years.  She had to re-learn everything, but an amazing teacher worked with her to help her catch up.  Then, when Katie took her first physics class, she was "so interested and excited about what I was learning I realized that although I loved math, I was passionate about understanding the world and how it worked – a passion I’d not felt in years... I’d always dreamed of doing something that could influence the world and make it a better place and to do that I needed to be doing something much more relevant to everyday life. I thought working in solar technology sounded interesting, although I didn’t understand at all how it worked..." 

After considering transferring to UC Berkeley, "I learned that Santa Cruz had recently been listed as top in the nation for physics at public universities, was regularly in the top ten and had a great undergraduate research program – something I knew nothing about and was barely mentioned at my community college."

Transferring to UCSC

Katie started at UCSC in fall, 2011. "The next year I started at UC Santa Cruz, incredibly unsure of everything. I didn’t know anyone, I felt like I didn’t really know physics, I didn’t know the town – I was scared out of my mind...Within the first couple weeks I made a few friends and relaxed a little bit – there was a huge transfer community and everyone else seemed as lost as me. In November of that first quarter, Tesla (Jeltema, Associate Professor of Physics) organized a Women in Physics dinner in which all the female faculty came to, along with many postdocs and grad students. They introduced themselves, saying what research they do.

It was there that I met Sue Carter, who is one of the few applied physicists on campus and was working in photovoltaics. I really realized I knew nothing about what she was working on, but I still asked if she’d be interested in taking me on. After several months of emails back and forth she and her postdoc met with me....I started in Spring Quarter (of 2011) and have been with her since. 

"Saving the World"

Since coming to UCSC, Katie continually reconsidered her goals, "...analyzing all parts of what make me happy, what I’m good at, and what is needed in the world and came to a conclusion. I wanted to save the world... I wanted to change the way we understand energy, how we use it, and what its impacts on the earth are... To do that, I needed to make people understand. So ultimately I decided that, first, I needed to go to grad school (which I was still up in the air about). Then, I needed to get in to science communication and policy, maybe even politics."

How do you define undergraduate research?

Undergraduate research is when a student begins work in the field they have chosen... It is when you begin to have an understanding of what people in your field are doing and working on and learn what it means to contribute to the scientific community. The student is learning and developing skills to apply to future education (grad school) or the industry and is able to determine what exactly they want to be doing once they finish their degree. For some, this experience teaches them that they do not want to be in research or even in their field. For others, they find the subject that interests them most and can decide if they wish to continue with schooling or begin applying their
knowledge elsewhere.

What did you do to prepare for college level work in physics?

I don’t know that I really did anything to prepare – I worked hard and studied in community college, though probably not enough...I spread myself so thin working on many different projects and things outside of academics. However, I’d say I learned where and where not to study, where I could focus, and what styles of learning worked best for me.

What projects did (do) you work with as an undergraduate?

I’ve worked mostly on the LSC (Luminescent Solar Concentrator) project... The picture to the right shows the luminescent plastic films that we make in the lab for use in integrated photovoltaics...Within the LSC project, I’ve worked on several things. First, I worked on testing the effects of the concentrators on algae for use in biofuels – this was done in collaboration with the Bebout Labs at NASA Ames. After a time, I transitioned out of that project – I didn’t have much knowledge to contribute, and I felt like I would be more interested in other things. I then began working on testing an anti-reflective coating, which proved very difficult and didn’t get very far. Next, I transitioned into optimizing the LSCs, which is what I do now. I’ve worked on exploring new polymers, testing new dyes (see the adjacent picture), developing new techniques, and overall concepts of how to make LSCs more efficient and generate more power. I now head the research at the lab end, and am hoping to write one or two first author papers this year on my work.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your research?

Time management. Its hard to make sure you’re spending your time doing the right things, whether its deciding how much time to study vs. doing research, or how to spend your time while doing the research. I’ve definitely wasted time figuring out something that ended up being irrelevant, instead of asking for help or someone else’s input. It’s also been hard realizing that not all work produces usable results and data, and that sometimes it can be very slow going.

How does your undergraduate research help you academically with your other classes?

My research has definitely helped me take a greater interest in some of my classes, such as quantum mechanics or solid state physics. It has also forced me to allocate specific time to classes, so when I need to get work done I get it done instead of putting it off.

What have you learned from undergraduate research?

I’ve learned what I want to do when I grow up. I’ve also learned what I don’t want to do. I’ve learned new techniques, ways of looking at things, and how to interact with other people doing similar things to me. It helps remind you that what you are doing isn’t all important and that we all have things we are passionate about and think are great. I’ve learned what it means to be in research at all levels and just how political it can be. I’ve also learned how to handle it and let go of things you can’t control or of things that happen in the workplace.

Who has been the most important mentor for you, and why?

My PI (Sue) has been the most important mentor and a huge inspiration for me. She has always had complete confidence in anything I do and pushes me to figure out what I want and need to do. Whenever I have a question, she always helps me figure out where to go if she can’t answer it herself.

What advice would you give students interested in doing physics research?

Don’t be afraid to leave a position. I’ve been lucky with my lab in that I work well with everyone and get along great with my PI, however that’s not always the case. If you’re having a rough time, do everything you can to be polite and get along, but work towards getting out. When applying for grad school or a job, people would rather hear great references than see you’ve been in one place for a long time. And if you’re in a good environment, you’re likely to do much better work.

How do you balance undergraduate research with your classes and extracurricular activities?

It’s all about being organized, setting priorities and pushing yourself to complete what you set out to do for the day. But its important to also keep balance. You’ll burn out quickly if you don’t have any fun in your schedule. Making sure you allow time for that helps you to be more productive and excited when working and doing school work. I’ve pushed myself too hard several times and found myself struggling to get everything done and stay interested in it all.

What are you doing now? How did undergraduate research help get you where you are?

Now I’m beginning a job as a staff researcher in my lab. I’ll be maintaining equipment, managing the lab, and helping run my research project. This is a continuation of my undergraduate work, however all that I’ve done has given me the experience I need to do this job. My work has given me several connections and has taught me what expectations of researchers are.

What specific career goals do you have that make your research important?

I hope to go into energy policy and science communication. My work in photovoltaics is an excellent building block towards that. I’m learning all about what is available, what restrictions are, and the other less well known factors in employing renewable energy. My work has set me up well for graduate school which is an important step towards my goals.

What are your plans for after you finish at UCSC?

Now that I’m finished at UCSC, I’ll continue to work for the next year and a half in my lab. This fall I’ll take the physics GRE and apply for grad school.

How has your gender, age, and/or background influenced your experience in your field?

For a long time, I felt like my gender did not have much affect on my experience; however, the last year or so has made me realize that there are a lot of hidden biases towards women in physics. I have noticed that expectations are lower and respect is sometimes reduced. Not everyone exhibits these prejudices and I believe those that do are often unaware of them.

Until recently, I think I let some of the stereotypes and prejudices affect me... I seemed to be convinced that I was less capable than those around me. This may also be due to my unique background in fashion and my age. I felt like so many people younger than me knew so much more about physics, computers, technology, etc. and I often had no clue what they were talking about. I finally realized that it was purely my interests that made me different; their hobbies were electronics, coding, and so forth while mine span a large variety of subjects. However, until this finally sank in I often felt excluded and unable to connect to others which made it difficult when I needed help or study groups.

My age has had a variety of affects on me. There are many transfer students in physics and I’ve established some great friendships because of this.  It has also gives me more life experience than others and the ability to look at situations differently.

Profile complied by Rebecca Anderson
May, 2014