magine - you are a superhero able to travel at the speed of light around Planet Earth – you whiz around the globe at close to 40 times a second. Lighter than air, you are filled with a sense of awe and wonder at how chemical molecules, light and optics appear to work together seamlessly in such a complex environment.
These concepts fascinated UCI alumnus Desiré Whitmore as an elementary student growing up in southern California. Although she is not yet circumnavigating the globe, today Desiré is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley where she is part of a team in the laboratories of Stephen Leone and Daniel Neumark. She and her colleagues are designing a next-generation laser instrument that will allow researchers to begin to accurately measure the speed of electrons travelling in solid materials. “By using light pulses to capture the motion of electrons we can begin to make some educated guesses on what is actually happening in these materials,” Desiré notes.
While a doctoral candidate in the Chemical & Material Physics (ChaMP) program at UCIrvine, Desiré focused on light - optics and lasers - and their effects on different types of materials. “How molecules interact with light is a truly fascinating subject,” she states.
The ChaMP program is designed to prepare M.S. and Ph.D. scientists for modern careers in Physical Sciences, where cross-disciplinary education with an emphasis on applications is in increasing demand. For graduate students with backgrounds in Chemistry, Physics, or Engineering, the program unifies physical and chemical approaches to the study of matter, through the applied science of modern materials.
Desiré is quick to point out that her time at UCI was critical in the development of the scientific and professional skills that she now uses every day as a postdoc. “I chose UCI for several reasons,” she states. “Because of my interdisciplinary background, the ChaMP program attracted me from the beginning. It allowed me to basically define my own graduate path, taking courses in chemistry, physics, and engineering. Though it was a rigorous work load, I believe that it was worth the extra effort.”
As a graduate student, Desiré was very involved in student mentoring, including tutoring elementary children in after-school programs. UCI provided many opportunities to not only acquire knowledge in her areas of interest, but also enabled her to develop her love of teaching. “I love learning and I love teaching – being able to witness the discovery of a new idea in the eyes of a young student continues to be a transformational moment,” she notes.
Through her mentoring and teaching experiences at UCI, Desiré has developed a strong commitment to teaching and learning which she hopes to pass along to the next-generation of scientists. “Taking a complex idea and breaking it down into a concept that a fourth or fifth grader can understand is important. Being able to ignite the passion for science in the next generation of students is something in which I strongly believe.”
In addition to serving as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for several undergraduate and graduate-level Chemistry courses at UCI, Desiré worked with the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies (CACT) where she was instrumental in the planning, implementation and teaching of an Introduction to Optics course. With positive feedback from students, Desiré was invited to become an advisory committee member of the UCIrvine Extension Optical Engineering & Instrument Design Program.
During her graduate studies at UCI, Desiré received funding from the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program as well as from Competitive Edge, the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) Fellowship, the NSF Graduate Researcher Fellowship (NSF GRFP) and the Presidential Dissertation Year Fellowship.
She is the former President and Outreach Chair of the Optical Society of America (OSA) student chapter, and has served on the Graduate Advisory Council for Diversity at UCI. Currently, Desiré serves as the Outreach Chair of Women Scientists and Engineers Council at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory (LBNL).
How does one do it all? “I think that the best way of coping with the stresses and pressures of graduate school is to get involved in other things. In my case, I was active in mentoring and I was also very active with the Graduate Division where I worked on ways to improve the lives of graduate students across campus,” says Desiré. Even now with a demanding research schedule, Desiré takes time to relax by hiking, visiting with friends and family and getting outside the ‘comfort zone’ of the work place. “It’s important to stay focused,” she notes, “But it is equally important to be balanced and flexible.”
Desiré often refers to a saying by writer Maya Angelou, “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.”