Q&A with Society Alumna Meredith MacGregor | Society for Science & the Public
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Q&A with Society Alumna Meredith MacGregor

December 7, 2011

Meredith MacGregor, the Intel Science Talent Search 2007 Ninth Place Winner and one of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2006 top award winners, discusses the Brazil Nut Effect, research at Harvard, inspiring girls to do science, and more.

What are your memories of Intel STS and Intel ISEF? What was it like to win the top award at Intel ISEF?

It is very difficult to distill all of my memories from Intel STS and Intel ISEF into a short enough response to fit into this interview. While it may sound cheesy, some of my favorite memories from high school are from Intel STS and Intel ISEF. Beyond that, some of my best friends are from Intel STS and Intel ISEF and I still keep in touch with many people from my year at Intel STS on a regular basis. It is truly a gift to know and have connections with such a talented group of scientists.

Winning the top award at Intel ISEF was an amazing experience.  I was absolutely floored when I heard my named called, so it took me a second to realize that I had to walk up to the stage. Given the incredible talent and competition at Intel ISEF, I think it is impossible to expect winning such an award.  I remember just being stunned and overjoyed at the same time. And, I definitely remember the confetti! (I saved some of it afterwards.)

What exactly is the Brazil Nut Effect?

The Brazil Nut Effect (BNE) is a phenomenon that occurs in granular materials. Essentially, vigorous shaking of a container holding a granular material will cause the components to separate by size, the largest particles rising to the top and the smallest sinking to the bottom. The name was coined because when you first open a can of mixed nuts, all of the large Brazil Nuts are on the top with all of the smaller nuts underneath, but you can also observe this effect in your morning breakfast cereal. For my Intel ISEF and Intel STS project, I conducted a series of experiments to study the convective flow that gets set up in a shaken container of granular material and to track how larger “intruder” particles of different densities are carried in that flow. As it turned out, air pressure plays a critical role in determining how quickly the larger particles rise to the surface.

How has doing research when you were young affected your career trajectory?

Doing research when I was young had a definite impact on my career trajectory. My early research projects gave me my first tastes of the thrill of finding something new out on my own and observing something that nobody else had seen before. By the time I began college, I could not imagine doing anything else but scientific research for the rest of my life and I am still following that goal today.

What are you up to now?

I just graduated from Harvard College in May of 2011 and I decided to jump right into graduate school afterwards. Currently, I am studying as a first year graduate student in Astronomy and Astrophysics at Harvard University. It was just too difficult to leave Cambridge and all of the amazing research opportunities here. For my current research project, I am studying the disks of dust and debris that exist around young, recently formed stars. By performing observations with submillimeter interferometers like the SMA and ALMA, we hope to be able to probe the process of planet formation within these disks.

What got you involved with Harvard Science Club for Girls?

Science Club for Girls (SCFG) is a larger organization in the Boston and Cambridge area that aims to provide mentorship for young girls who are interested in science by running afterschool programs in science for girls in kindergarten through 6th grade.  Undergraduate and graduate women go once a week and teach an experiment-based curriculum on topics that range from Oceans to the Human Body to Rockets.  I heard about SCFG over an email list when I was a junior in college and I knew that I wanted to get involved.  I remember how much my mentors meant to me when I was first beginning my path towards a career in science and I love having the opportunity to fill that role for today’s aspiring scientists.  Most physical sciences are still vastly male-dominated fields and I think that it is critical that we continue to encourage and inspire young girls and women to pursue careers in these fields.

After I had been involved with SCFG for two years, we began the process of forming a Harvard Science Club for Girls student organization.  Having this new organization makes it much easier to reach out to other Harvard undergraduate and graduate students and get them involved in the program as well.  The more mentors we have, the more girls we can reach!

Do you have any advice for young students who are interested in science?
First, I would say that it is important to have a goal.  Think of what you ultimately want to be doing (and, don’t worry about the fact that it might change in the future) and then go for it! Having a target in mind makes dealing with the day-to-day challenges a little easier.  Second, jump into research.  Sitting in a classroom is one thing, but there is no better way to get excited about science than to start getting your hands dirty.  It is also a really good way to figure what areas of science you are particularly excited about.