Scientist at Heart
Fellowship support empowers Ph.D. student on lifelong mission
By Sarah Burke
For Becca Rapp, choosing Carnegie Mellon University for graduate school was a homecoming.
Her Tartan roots go back to childhood, when she attended the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students (C-MITES) summer program. Today, she holds a master’s degree in physics from the Mellon College of Science and is working toward her Ph.D.
“When I visited campus, I was immediately immersed again in the supportive, engaging, and welcoming community I had experienced as a child,” she says. “I was coming full circle, and I was excited for the possibilities and opportunities CMU had to offer.”
Last year, nearly 2,200 members of the Tartan community contributed to scholarships and fellowships, providing critical resources for students like Becca to pursue life-changing experiences at CMU.
As a J. Michael McQuade Presidential Fellow in Physics, Becca is making the most of her CMU education. Thanks to the fellowship’s stipend, she’s had the freedom to pursue meaningful professional development opportunities. Devoting time to research and diversity initiatives has helped her overcome the mental barrier of seeing herself as a scientist.
“Fellowship support invested in my future and gave me the opportunity to become a scientist that would've inspired my younger self,” Becca says. “It's a very cool feeling!”
During her time at CMU, Becca has fallen in love with researching what she describes as “the absolute weirdest particle” she’s ever encountered — the neutrino.
In fall 2020, Becca was selected for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science Graduate Student Research Program. She had the chance to complete a six-month stay at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where she collaborated with a CMU faculty member and DOE scientist on her thesis research.
“The more I learn, the more I see the connections of physics to practically every other discipline. As someone who has trouble deciding what to have for dinner, being able to study how everything works for the rest of my life is awesome.”
Becca has been recognized for her commitment to educating the next generation of scientists. She received the Hugh Young Graduate Student Teaching Award in 2020.
“I want to be a part of conversations about why physics is important, to help potential students find the confidence to pursue a physics career in whatever form they choose, and to share my passion for this field with as many people as possible,” she says.
Becca also helped bring the national Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics to CMU in January 2020.
“It was inspiring to see so many people coming together with the common goal of supporting women and gender minorities in physics,” Becca says. “The CMU community is always striving to be better than it was yesterday, and it has been a great place for me to grow.”
In the future, Becca plans to continue conducting research and teaching. While she hopes to become a university professor someday, she also recognizes that many professional options are available to her — in higher education, policy, science communications and other fields.
“As a CMU student, I’ve had the chance to network with representatives from a multitude of career paths and build confidence in the skills I can market to future employers,” she says. “I feel prepared for whatever path I’ll take to accomplish my goals.”