Kate Napier, B.S. in Physics

Advice to new students: Develop well-roundedness; take time for what makes you happy

Katherine Avery “Kate” Napier had wanted to attend Georgia Tech ever since she was in elementary school. Growing up, she attended summer robotics and swim camps at Tech and participated in annual dance performances at the Ferst Center for the Arts.  “I applied to Georgia Tech for early admission,” she recalls. “I still remember opening the acceptance email surrounded by my family. I never applied to another college. It was an easy decision.”

Napier is graduating with a B.S. in Physics, Astrophysics Concentration and Research Option. She attended Lakeside High School, in Atlanta. While in high school, she participated in the Scientific Tools and Techniques Program at Fernbank Science Center, taking about 15 hands-on science classes covering various topics – from anatomy to ornithology to astronomy. This experience deeply shaped her desire to study physics in college.

“My life has always been great,” Napier says, “because of my loving family and friends, the richness of my educational experiences, and the opportunities I had outside of school to pursue other interests.”

What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?

“Plan B” can be great.  Many of my most amazing opportunities are those I created because I refused to give up when my initial plans did not work out.  

The summer after my first year, after being declined to be a camp counselor, I was accepted to a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. I spent 10 weeks working on my own heliophysics research project, and I went to a conference in San Francisco in the fall to present my research.

At the end of my sophomore year, after applications to REU programs didn’t pan out, I reached out to School of Physics Professor Deirdre Shoemaker and was accepted to work with her and the Laser-Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) group, the international collaboration that was the first to detect gravitational waves in 2015. To have been a part of the greatest scientific discovery of this century will always be so special to me.

The summers after my third and fourth years, I applied to various REU programs and positions at NASA, but did not get any position. A mentor of mine from NASA helped me get an internship at NASA Ames in California. I worked for one of the same scientists this past summer, too, characterizing near-Earth asteroids.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

What surprised you most at Georgia Tech?

The multitude of opportunities at Georgia Tech far exceeded my expectations: many teams in various disciplines working on cutting-edge research, hundreds of student organizations, and study-abroad programs enabling exciting travel to many parts of the world.     

Which professor(s) or class(es) made a big impact on you?

Deirdre Shoemaker, James Sowell, and Jennie Lincoln.

When Dr. Shoemaker substituted for one of my physics courses, I was immediately impressed with her brilliance, ability to engage students, and energy. After my sophomore year, I began working with her on gravitational-wave physics. It could not have been timed more perfectly, as the first detection of a gravitational wave occurred that fall. In addition to being my primary research adviser, Dr. Shoemaker taught the relativity class I took and advised the Georgia Tech Society of Women in Physics.

I went to high school with Dr. Sowell’s son. During my senior year, Dr. Sowell encouraged me to study physics at Georgia Tech. I took two of his classes, on the solar system and stellar astrophysics. I also worked with him during public nights at the Georgia Tech Observatory. In summer 2015, we did binary-star research, which was published in fall 2016.

Dr. Lincoln is one of my professors on the Pacific Study Abroad Program. She inspires me, as she has one of the most successful careers of any woman I know. Her work with President Jimmy Carter constantly reminds me of how important it is to show kindness to other people.    

These three professors have continuously supported my endeavors.

What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?

February 11, 2016, was one of the best days of my time at Georgia Tech. On that day, LIGO announced that we had successfully detected our first gravitational wave.

My family and I were among those who attended the community viewing of a live press conference by the National Science Foundation. We were amazed to hear that the binary black hole system that created the gravitational wave was over one billion light years away. I will always remember the excitement of that day and the foundation it laid for a new era of gravitational wave astrophysics.

What was the most valuable outcome of your participation in experiential learning activities?

While in the Pacific Study Abroad Program in the spring of 2015, I scuba-dived on the Great Barrier Reef while spending the week on a remote island. In Fiji, I scuba-dived with about 40 sharks. On another scuba diving trip, I helped collect several hundred pounds of debris.

I climbed a volcano in New Zealand. I pointed a telescope at Jupiter while standing on the beach.

I witnessed life below the ocean’s surface and looked at other planets in the night sky. I was reminded of the vastness of nature. The richness of my adventures taught me about the importance of caring for the world and all of its beauty.

As humans are quickly destroying coral reefs, it is more important now more than ever to promote the well-being of all creatures. I hope to be a life-long adventurer and always take the time to ensure that my actions support sustainability.

What advice would you give to incoming Georgia Tech freshmen?

Develop well-roundedness in college. Life is much more than being a great scientist, engineer, mathematician, or businessperson. Academic and career pursuits are important and deserve proper attention and energy. However, it is equally important to be a good friend, citizen, and leader.

Get involved in communities that recognize your strengths and encourage you to pursue your passions. Take time for what makes you happy. Pursuing interests outside the classroom often makes you a better student.

I am passionate about increasing the number of women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As a part of One Voice Atlanta, Georgia Tech’s anti-sex-trafficking organization, I partnered with a local after-school program whose students come from low-income families and are at risk for becoming trafficked or traffickers. I help lead monthly STEM activities and plan field trips to Georgia Tech.

How did Georgia Tech help you for your next step after graduation?

I will start my Ph.D. in astrophysics in fall 2018. I am still applying so I do not know yet where I will be.

My Georgia Tech education helped prepare me for this next step by providing me many opportunities to think critically, innovate, work as a member of a team, and speak to the public about my research.

My ultimate dream is to be an astronaut. While at Georgia Tech, I met several astronauts including Sandra Magnus and Jan Davis. Seeing people who look like me excelling in the career I want to pursue inspires me and reassures me that I am capable.  

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  • Kate Napier, B.S. in Physics, Fall 2017

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A. Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D.
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