Rhiannon Meharchand Wins National Women in Science Award

In honor of one of the pioneering women in the history of physics, a student at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) has been awarded a scholarship to help follow in her footsteps.

The Luise Meyer-Schutzmeister Memorial Award is given annually to a woman with at least one year left in a physics Ph.D. program who has the greatest potential to make major contributions to her chosen field. This year’s recipient is Rhiannon Meharchand, an NSCL Ph.D. candidate studying the structures and forces at work inside of rare and exotic nuclei.

The award was established by Luise Meyer-Schutzmeister’s friends through the Education Foundation of the Association for Women in Science, of which Meyer-Schutzmeister was a member, and provides a $1,000 scholarship to the recipient.

“I plan on using the scholarship to buy a new laptop that is capable of handling the analysis of my thesis data and future work ,” said Meharchand, who will spend the next year analyzing data from her experiment’s run in 2009 while continuing her activity in three different diversity groups for the sciences.

Meharchand is not only active when it comes to women in science programs, she is proactive. She co-founded the group Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences (WaMPS), an organization of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows interested in promoting and supporting women and minorities in physics. Also, she was a founding board member of the MSU chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and serves on the MSU College of Natural Science Council on Diversity and Community as one of five graduate student representatives.

And as if her roles in these organizations didn’t keep her busy enough, Meharchand is also busy studying nuclear physics.

Her research involves the use of a brand new technique developed at NSCL to study rare isotopes, which disappear in a matter of seconds after they are created in the lab. The technique was described for the first time in May in a paper published in Physical Review Letters on which she was the second author.

The method uses reactions in which charge is exchanged between a probe nucleus and the isotope being studied. A beam of isotopes is shot into a thin foil of 7Li at 80,000 miles per second. Occasionally, this collision causes a proton from the rare isotope – in this case 34P – to be exchanged with a neutron in the foil target. This is called a charge-exchange reaction and it causes two new isotopes to be formed; in this case silicon-34 and 7Be. By measuring the velocity and angle of 34Si after the collision, detailed information can be obtained about its properties.

Merchand’s research has a lot in common with her introduction to the world of nuclear physics from a minority viewpoint. Though they have the potential to be trying and difficult at times, both have been wonderful experiences; an example she’d like to see repeated time and again.

“I've been very fortunate in my career not to have experienced any roadblocks or difficulties that women often can in the sciences,” said Meharchand. “I've been nothing but pleasantly surprised at the attitudes of the current and next generation of physicists with regards to gender issues. I believe most of the work I do with WaMPS and AWIS is to ensure that other women have as good an experience as I have been lucky to have. I'm quite optimistic for the future.”