Nia Burrell: APS PhysicsQuest narrative

Nia Burrell shares her journey to becoming a PhD student to inspire others to pursue physics.
Nia Burrell illustration
PhysicsQuest 2023 highlights Nia Burrell, a brilliant physics Ph.D. candidate whose work aligns with the concepts students will explore in this quest.

During my middle school years from 2008 to 2011, math and science were my favorite subjects. I also enjoyed competing on my middle school track team. During this time, I became passionate about photography.

Growing up in New Jersey as a socially anxious teenager, I found it challenging to express myself completely. For instance, I was often too anxious to participate in class discussions or to let my personality shine among large groups of my peers. I have always appreciated how photography allows me to communicate my perspective without using words. It has helped me become less nervous and more excited about sharing my perspective. Over time, I have collected several types of cameras, but my favorite is the circa 1982 film camera that I inherited from my dad.

In addition to using photography to document the small details of my life, as a physics PhD candidate, I found myself drawn to the technical language used in photography. I was particularly interested in the optical aspects of photography, such as how lenses and mirrors manipulate the focus of a subject or background in an image, known as focal length. These concepts are relevant to my current research, and I find it fascinating to explore the connections between the two fields. My passion for the precision and technicalities of photography led me to where I am now as a precision measurement scientist.

I always loved math and science, so majoring in physics at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania felt natural. In college, I explored the physics of lasers and optics as sensitive detectors and precision measurement tools. Despite the underrepresentation of people of color and women in physics, I had supportive professors and peers who made me feel welcome. I joined Lafayette’s Physics Club as social media chair, where I managed event ads and department photos to boost my interest in physics. Collaborating with professors and peers to enhance department visibility was a positive and enjoyable experience. Professors informed me about research and extracurricular opportunities, enriching my undergraduate journey. My college thesis advisor, a new female professor in the physics department, entrusted me with building her laser optics lab, a defining moment in my scientific career.

I am currently in the fifth year of my physics PhD program at Northwestern University in the Chicago area. Outside the lab, I still enjoy running races and using my dad’s old film camera to document my life. In my physics research, I use the force of powerful lasers to make tiny spheres of plastic levitate in mid-air. These tiny plastic spheres, or nanospheres, are about the size of a typical coronavirus and are very sensitive to the forces in their surrounding environment. My goal is to use a single one of these nanospheres to measure tiny gravitational forces that expand on Isaac Newton’s original understanding of gravity. According to Newton’s laws, gravitational forces like the one that causes gravity on Earth, are undetectable at microscopic levels. I am trying to detect it. My experiment with a levitated (floating) nanosphere detector is useful for biological scientists who need to use the forces of lasers, a.k.a. “optical tweezers,” to study and manipulate tiny particles like DNA. These tools make it easier for us to study and better understand the universe on a microscopic level. I enjoy working on my experiment because I have the opportunity to study new and unexplored areas of physics. I am very excited to work on my research for the rest of my time in graduate school! After I graduate, I hope to use my skills as a scientist in a research lab or as a patent agent at a law firm (a.k.a. a scientific expert who helps inventors get their technology patented).

PhysicsQuest 2023

Find your career path in physics

Careers in optics include:

  • Engineer.
  • Optomechanics researcher.
  • Camera design.
  • Materials engineer.
  • Electrical engineer.
  • Laser engineer.
  • Observatory scientist.
  • Optical engineer.
  • Lens manufacturing engineer.
  • Optical scientist.
  • Software engineer.
  • Telescope/microscope optics engineer.
  • Fiber optics.

Careers in light and lighting include:

  • Electrician.
  • Solar energy.
  • Solar panels.
  • Energy services company.
  • Lighting designer (for concerts, shows, buildings, and more).
  • Lighting fixture manufacturer.
  • Lighting specialist.

Careers in waves include:

  • Meteorological science.
  • Physical oceanography.
  • Seismology (earthquakes) scientist.
  • Electronic engineering.
  • Medical imaging (Xray, MRI, CT scan).
  • Gravitational waves researcher.

Careers in education include:

  • High school physics teacher.
  • College professor.
  • Two-year college professor.
  • Curriculum developer.
  • Science education coordinator.
  • Tutor.

Discover more physics careers or explore the career paths of other physicists.

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