NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Awarded to Physics Major
April 22, 2015
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Illinois Wesleyan
University physics major Margaret McCarter ’15 (Arlington Heights, Illinois) a three-year Graduate Research
The competitive program awarded 2,000 fellowships this year from among 16,500 applicants spread across natural and social sciences,
technology, engineering and mathematics, making it among the most competitive graduate
fellowships nationwide, according to Professor of Physics Narendra Jaggi. NSF Graduate
Research Fellows receive an annual stipend of $34,000 for three years, and an honorarium
of $12,000 toward tuition and fees at the student’s graduate institution. Since the
1950s, NSF has provided fellowships to individuals selected early in their graduate
careers based on their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science
and engineering. Former NSF Fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, Google co-founder
Sergey Brin and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.
“I would have to go back years to name another IWU physics major whose combination
of ability, achievement in the classroom, work ethic, achievement in research labs
both during summers and during the academic year, is comparable to that of Margaret,”
said Jaggi, who served as McCarter’s advisor. “This fellowship, and her admission
to the Ph.D. program at the University of California-Berkeley, are launching her on
a very promising trajectory.”
McCarter credits her Illinois Wesleyan experiences with her successful fellowship
application. “It’s a very exciting time for me, but I think this award also says a
lot about the quality of the physics department here,” said McCarter. “I doubt I could
have gotten where I am now without the help of all my professors, classmates and friends.
The supportive environment here at IWU has really made all the difference.”
As a student McCarter worked summers in labs at Yale University and at the University
of Illinois. At Yale she looked at using ferroelectric materials, which have an intrinsic
electric field, making them good candidates for use in electronics and memory devices.
In the Yale lab, she used a ferroelectric material to create a transistor, an electronic
component found by the billions in cell phones and computers.
“At the interface between two different materials, there are a lot of new properties
that can arise that are different than the individual properties of the two materials
separately,” said McCarter. “I was totally fascinated by this idea, and I’m hoping
to study similar phenomena in graduate school.”
At the University of Illinois lab, McCarter learned the techniques to study iron-based
superconductors, a newer class of materials not well understood. Understanding the
mechanisms of superconductivity and how the electrons behave are important for the
future of superconductors, where they could be used to help meet society’s growing
energy needs, she explained. The fact that superconductors do not lose power, as ordinary
conductors do, makes them ideal for energy applications.
“The biggest roadblock is that superconductors need to be kept very cold in order
to work,” McCarter explained. “The hope is that by studying and understanding these
materials, we can find better superconductors that can operate at practical temperatures
for widespread applications.”
McCarter was also named as a Goldwater Scholar, recognizing outstanding academic achievement
in mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. She served as co-president of
the Illinois Wesleyan Society of Physics Students, and was a founding member of the
IWU student chapter of SPIE, an international society advancing an interdisciplinary
approach to the science and application of light. She is a member of the American
Physical Society and the National Society of Leadership and Success. At IWU McCarter
also worked in the lab of Assistant Professor of Physics Bruno deHarak on his NSF-funded
research on electron scattering processes.
Ultimately McCarter would like to work as a researcher at a national lab or in private
industry. She’ll have an opportunity to test the atmosphere in a lab this summer,
when she works at Argonne National Laboratory. This fall McCarter will enter the Ph.D.
program in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. At Cal she expects to
be part of Professor Ramamoorthy Ramesh’s lab.