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Glowing Excitement: USU Physicist Sweeps Awards at Global Conference

Thursday, Oct. 04, 2012

USU student Rachel Ward in The Netherlands

USU physics student Rachel Ward at The Netherlands' famed Dom Tower of Utrecht. Ward was one of only two U.S. students selected to attend the 2012 International Conference of Physics Students, held in Utrecht, where she won two first place awards.

the Dom Tower, Utrecht, The Netherlands

In a 2011 photo, the laser artwork 'Sol Lumen' illuminates the night sky from Utrecht University to the city’s medieval Dom Tower in celebration of the school’s 375th anniversary. Utrecht hosted ICPS 2012, attended by USU student Rachel Ward.

Recent Utah State University graduate Rachel Ward is still pinching herself at the realization she was one of only two students from the United States selected to participate in the 2012 International Conference of Physics Students held Aug. 4-10 in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

“When I heard, I was dumbfounded,” says Ward, who completed a bachelor’s degree in physics from Utah State in summer 2012. “I couldn’t believe I’d received an all-expenses-paid opportunity to travel to Europe and present my research.”

Ward’s selection is no surprise to her USU physics faculty mentors nor is her outstanding performance at the prestigious gathering. The Sandy, Utah, native won first place for her research poster presentation as well as the first place award for poster design.

“I was astounded when I heard the announcement,” says Ward, who received an honorable mention from the Goldwater Foundation in April 2012. “I was practically glowing with excitement — sorry, I couldn’t resist the physics pun — both from the awards and the trip itself.”

“We are tremendously proud of Rachel,” says Jan Sojka, professor and head of USU’s Department of Physics. “She was an outstanding ambassador for USU and for the United States.”

Ward submitted a proposal for a Society of Physics Students Outstanding Student Award for Undergraduate Research last spring at the urging of faculty mentor David Peak. The award, presented by the American Physical Society’s national student organization, affords recipients the opportunity to present at the international conference and includes cash awards for the student recipient and the student’s home SPS chapter.

“I was amazed and humbled when I learned about the award,” says Ward, who graduated from Alta High School in 2005. “Although I’d received a number of honors at USU, I felt especially honored that I’d been chosen to represent the United States.”

Upon arriving in Utrecht, Ward says she was struck by the city’s beauty.

“Having grown up in the desert climate of Utah, I was impressed with the beautiful greenery and innovative system of lakes and waterways created by reclamation,” she says. “The quaint brick buildings, narrow, cobbled streets and scarcity of automobiles made it seem as though I’d been transported back in time several centuries.”

In spite of the city’s antique feel, Ward says she was soon thrust into some of the most cutting-edge research in the world. The conference, she says, was a whirlwind of lectures, social events and excursions.

“I can’t possibly identify which of these aspects I enjoyed most or from which I grew most,” she says. “It was exciting both intellectually and culturally.”

At the conference, Ward presented research she’d conducted with faculty mentor Mike Taylor on gravity waves as exhibited in polar mesospheric clouds.

“As I prepared for the conference, my primary focus was preparing for my lectures and getting the most out of others’ lectures,” she says. “My passion for physics has always been looking forward to learning what others in my field are doing as well as presenting my own work. At ICPS, I was amazed by the scope and content of research being performed by my counterparts from all over the world.”

With a goal of graduating from college debt-free, Ward worked full-time for one year after high school before entering Salt Lake Community College, where she was named to the President’s List. She subsequently entered USU on a Dean’s Transfer Scholarship. Ward is currently pursuing graduate study in physics at USU and plans a career in academia.

“I’m immensely grateful to USU and to SPS,” Ward says. “Participating in ICPS was the trip of a lifetime. And, through my undergraduate experience at USU, I have a solid start in research and a good basis for a thesis.”

Related links:

USU Department of Physics

USU College of Science

Contact: David Peak, 435-797-2884,

Contact: Rachel Ward,

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