Angie Wolfgang leans forward, her eyes shining, as she describes the research she’s done in her four years at Cornell. She began working with Professor Itai Cohen as a freshman, studying soft condensed matter. She’s also worked with Professor James Lloyd through the New York NASA Space Grant Consortium and the Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholars program, building an infrared spectrometer. Then, she prepared a paper at Penn State on a star cluster essential for studying the evolution of low temperature stars. “I couldn’t have done all this if I weren’t at Cornell,” she says.
But Angie’s initial introduction to science classes at Cornell wasn’t always smooth sailing. As a freshman she found the “problem sets” (weekly assignments given in science classes) extremely challenging. She never gave up, but sometimes during that first year doubts crept in about studying science. Then she volunteered for Cornell’s “Expanding Your Horizons,” a one-day conference to introduce middle school girls to science. As Angie accompanied her “buddy” to the activities, “I realized again why I love science. It boosted my enthusiasm.” Since then, she’s volunteered for CCMR education and outreach events whenever she can.
Despite their difficulty, Angie came to see that the problem sets “helped me think like a scientist and have really benefited me in the long-term.” Because she had to be both creative and analytical, she says now she’s able to find solutions to problems that others don’t see, even when those problems have nothing to do with science.
One of the reasons Angie chose Cornell was because she wanted to be able to focus more on science theory than application. She grins at the irony, because “I found I really like applications best.” But she’s still pleased that she chose a liberal arts school instead of a technical program, because of the interests she’s discovered here, such as linguistics, Asian religions and education. The wide range of available classes surprised her, because when she applied she hadn’t looked at much beyond the physics and astronomy courses.
Although Angie is passionate about her research, she is equally enthusiastic about her involvement with Cornell’s marching band. “I’m a huge band geek,” she says with a laugh. During Orientation Week she went to band activities between events, and her pace hasn’t slowed since. “Band completely absorbs your free time,” she says, although she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Angie describes the band as her haven from classes. “The transition from high school was a little rough,” she says, because the classes were harder, so as a freshman she spent the week “frantically hurrying to get my work done so I could go to band and de-stress.” When she needed help or advice, upperclassmen in the band were always happy to lend a hand. “It’s like a family,” she says.
Not Like Home
The diversity of the Cornell community has been important to Angie, who grew up in a demographically homogeneous area of southern Maryland. She’s taken advantage of the cultural activities on campus, attending the different world fairs, sampling the cuisines served at different student association events, and going to the dances sponsored by various campus culture organizations. She says “it’s awesome, the way students here aren’t afraid to share their heritage with other people.” She feels her “closed-in horizons have been pushed out. All these experiences have really had an effect on me.”
Angie knew the minute she visited Cornell that this was the right school for her. She loved the natural beauty of the campus, and liked the traditions and stories she heard about on her tour, like Dragon Day and the pumpkin on the clock tower. But what most drew her to Cornell was the “down-to-earth feeling” she got, not something she’d expected from an Ivy League school.
Becoming an astronomer has been Angie’s goal for a long time, but during her junior year an apparently insurmountable obstacle appeared. She took an advanced physics course that everyone told her was required to get into graduate school—“and I didn’t understand anything,” she says. She ended up dropping the class and shifting her focus to science education. But she was still committed to astronomy so, with the encouragement of her professors, she applied to graduate schools anyway. Her face brightens as she names the top-notch astronomy programs that accepted her. Having decided on U.C. Santa Cruz, she’ll now be able to continue her search for exoplanets and the Earth-like worlds still waiting to be discovered. She can’t wait.