Photographer Prepares for Graduate
While studying photography at the UW, Brynn MacCoy (’11) signed up for a physics course for non-majors. The focus of the course was light and color, which she thought would complement her photography work. She never imagined that the class would lead her toward a physics degree and graduate studies in physics.
In an interview with A&S staff, MacCoy talks about unexpectedly discovering a passion for physics and choosing to pursue that passion.
Brynn MacCoy. Photo by Jacob Lambert.
Were you pretty set on photography when you came to the UW?
I was. I spent three years at Bellevue Community College studying photography. They have a really amazing photo program there, but they don’t do much with digital photography, which was something I was interested in. That’s what initially made me want to come to the UW to do photography.
Why take a physics course?
The class was on the physics of light. Photography happens because of light--the properties of light--so I wanted to understand, especially with analog photography, exactly what goes on physically and mechanically. The course really fostered that link between photography and physics for me, two things that at first kind of seem to be really different but are actually really connected.
It must have been quite a course, for you to consider pursuing a physics major.
I went into the class expecting to be confused and maybe take a few things away, but so much of what I learned was mysterious and surprising to me. It just made me want to learn more and dig deeper. There was a lot that was introduced. It gave me this desire to learn the rest of it because there’s so much under every single topic.
Were the math prerequisites a consideration in becoming a physics major?
When I first considered pursuing a physics major, the physics adviser said, “OK, first you have to take all these math classes.” I hadn’t taken any math classes in five years, so that was a big hump, getting back into that. I did well in math in high school, but I was just taking it to get it out of the way. I always assumed I would go on to do art and that would be it and I would never have to do math again. So realizing I wanted to do something where I had to do a whole lot of math was an interesting transition.
Your first physics class for majors must have been quite different than the course on light and color for non-majors.
That first class was really frustrating. I thought, “I’m not sure I can do this.” But Professor Morales, who taught the class, was really encouraging. He assured me that everyone feels that way and that’s how you learn.
"...so much of what I learned was mysterious and surprising to
me. It just made me want to learn more and dig deeper."
Soon after that, you began working in two research labs, with Professor Morales and with Gray Rybka, research associate professor, also in the Department of Physics. Can you describe the research projects?
The research I do with Professor Morales is on radio astronomy, looking at the sky in the radio frequency range. Using a special radio telescope, we are studying are gamma ray bursts, which essentially are stars that collapse into a black hole with a gigantic explosion. Because you can see them so far away, it helps us see what the universe looked like at the very early times.
With Dr. Rybka, I’ve been working on a neutrino mass experiment. A neutrino is a particle that we know exists but is so tiny that no one has been able to measure the mass yet. We have an idea of what the mass should be, but we want to learn more.
Brynn MacCoy discusses how scholarships have given
her greater confidence.
You have received several scholarships in the past few years. What have they meant to you?
I was no longer eligible for need-based financial aid after four years at UW. So in my fifth and final year, I became concerned. Even working an outside job, I wasn’t sure I had the financial resources to complete my degree. Then the Mary Gates Research Endowment came along. Having that financial support for two quarters allowed me to take full quarters, which I don’t think I would have been able to afford on my own. And because I’ve been able to take those extra classes and do the extra research, I feel like I have a more well-rounded understanding of physics now and am more prepared for graduate school.
I also received the Mary L. Boas Endowed Scholarship, which is for undergraduate women in physics. Women are really underrepresented in physics. Even at the UW, it’s typical to have about 10% women in upper level classes. That support meant not having to go into debt this quarter--being able to graduate and pay for the GRE test and pay for applying to grad schools. It gave me that last little means to get over the hump.
Apart from the financial support they provide, the awards also acknowledge your potential as a scientist. That must be encouraging.
The Mary Boas Award is a departmental award, with professors nominating students they think deserve it, so I was really overwhelmed that I got that. Physics can be challenging. It can be this constant getting beaten up every day and feeling like you’re not understanding anything and then kind of realizing that you do, and then realizing that you don’t again. So finding out that there were professors that felt like I was working hard and I was someone who had a chance of success at grad school helps me feel like I can do it.
With all the focus on physics, have you continued to pursue photography as well?
Absolutely. I graduated with a degree in photography as well as physics. There are so many things still to learn and to experiment with in photography, which keeps me really interested in it. Also, I have a hard time expressing things in words sometimes. Photography is an interesting way of not having to think about things in words, of being able to express those things I can’t express in words.
What are your plans for graduate school?
I’ve been in college a long time so right now I’m taking a little break before grad school, but I’m definitely planning for it. When I took that first physics for non-majors course, I was expecting it to be this endurance thing, just fulfilling a science requirement. Then I realized it was really amazing and that there’s just so much going on behind things we consider simple everyday occurrences.
I’m not sure that I have a natural ability or natural predisposition to science, but I want to understand it enough to work hard and to just really, really bang my head against it until I understand it. I think that’s the quality that’s helped me succeed. I’m not willing to give up until I understand it, which may be stubborn of me.