UW Madison McNair Scholar Exploring the Universe as UC Berkeley Doctoral Student

Posted by on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 2:45 - 0 Comments

UWlogo_ctr_4cJessie Otradovec showed promise in post-high school jobs at Papa John’s and Cost Cutters in Green Bay. But she wanted to play with the universe.

She eventually left behind the pizza and barber shears and, at age 27, will graduate from UW-Madison this weekend with a bachelor’s degree in physics and astrophysics.

“I’m just tremendously proud of her,” said physics professor Michael Ramsey-Musolf, who served as Otradovec’s research mentor. “She’s a remarkable scientist and person.”

Thousands of new graduates will walk across stages at local colleges and universities this weekend, collecting diplomas and stepping into the future. Otradovec stands out because of the journey that led her to that stage and the galactic future that awaits beyond.

Next stop: a doctorate program in physics at UC-Berkeley, ranked the fifth-best of its kind in the nation. She’ll go with help from a UC Chancellor’s Graduate Fellowship, a prestigious honor. She credits UW-Madison mentors and, in particular, the McNair Scholars program, a federally funded program on campus to help first-generation college students pursue graduate school, for her unlikely success story.

“I wouldn’t be going to Berkeley, let alone with the chancellor’s fellowship, without McNair,” she said.

Otradovec grew up on the Menominee Indian reservation in northeastern Wisconsin. Her mother works at Wal-Mart. She chose a field, physics, where just 10 to 15 percent of university faculty nationally are women.

Although Otradovec showed academic promise at Shawano High School, health problems caused turbulence and she didn’t take college applications seriously enough. After graduation, she enrolled at a technical college but dropped out after a semester, earning just three credits.

To pay the bills, she took a job at Papa John’s in Green Bay, rising to management within a year. She quit, fearing the direction her life was heading, and later started a three-year apprentice program as a Cost Cutters barber.

She continued to harbor dreams to “play with lots of complicated matters,” dreams fed by a scientific curiosity developed in childhood. She figured her best fit would be in chemical engineering.

During barber training, a chemical engineer wound up in her chair for a trim. She told him of her interest in his field and got an unexpected response.

“Why don’t you do something else that’s more fulfilling?” she said he told her.

He recommended theoretical physics and suggested she read “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene. She picked up the book from the public library, and it changed her course.

“It’s really awesome,” she said. “It was the first time in a few years I was having my mind challenged. I decided I wanted to research something like this.”

She kept cutting hair, eventually earning her license. She filled her spare time devouring physics books from the library and making plans to apply to UW-Madison, partly for the opportunities it presented to do research in particle physics and partly for its history of student activism.

When the time came to apply, a glitch arose — her three credits earned at the technical college disqualified her to apply as a freshman, while at least 24 credits were required to apply as a transfer student. So she detoured to UW-Eau Claire, living in the dormitories with younger students and waiting for her Madison chance.

When that chance came, she thrived, earning mostly A’s and eventually scoring in the 94th, 96th and 98th percentile in the three parts of the Graduate Record Examination. She impressed faculty not only for tackling high-level research with Ramsey-Musolf in theoretical particle physics — rare for undergrads to attempt — but also for her work as a tutor in the physics learning center.

“She stood out for her maturity and for her commitment to inclusion and social justice in the larger campus community,” said Susan Nossal, director of the physics learning center. “She showed she really cared about other students’ learning and their success.”

Otradovec hopes to earn her doctorate and become a professor, reaching out to another generation of students.

“I definitely want to be someone in physics who makes it more common and possible for all sorts of people to play with the universe,” she said.

Article originally published by Dan Simmons in the Wisconsin State Journal on May 17, 2013. 

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