Gardiner Has Earned a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Science with a Double Major in Physics and a Minor in Computer Science
Activities at UVA: Rodman Council, Virginia Women’s Rugby, Sigma Pi Sigma, Society of Physics Students, Intramural Soccer
Q: Looking back to the time when you applied to UVA Engineering, why did you choose this school?
A: I’m from Northern Virginia and knew a lot of people going to UVA, so that was always on my radar. I came here for model UN conferences and I liked the school, but wasn’t set on it until Days on the Lawn, when it kind of clicked. I saw the school differently than I ever had, through a new lens. It felt like home.
During that visit, we had a special segment for Rodman Scholars. I met with professor Dana Elzey, an associate professor of science, technology and society and director of the Rodman Scholars program. I was inspired by the other Rodman Scholars. One student in particular, Katie Solatto, who was president of the Rodman Council at the time, spoke to us about what she had done since she came to UVA, about her research. I saw in her a lot of what I wanted to be. I was able to picture myself as a Rodman Scholar at UVA.
After your time here, how are you different now – how have you grown as a person?
It would be harder to ask me how I’m the same. I think I’ve changed a lot. A lot of the things on paper are the same. I came in with a goal that I wanted to go into physics and apply to grad school to become a professor. I’m still on that path. But I feel like I’ve had a lot of shifts in mindset and what I value.
I’ve been reflecting a lot over the past couple months. I’ve been asking myself, what do I want to get out of my last two months at UVA? That shed light on my new priorities, which are to foster all the relationships I already have, maybe even make some new ones, and to spend as much time as I can with people I’ve come to care for and hobbies I enjoy. That was something I didn’t prioritize enough when I came in as a first year. I would always choose homework over hanging out with friends. I have a new perspective on that.
Same thing with health. Prioritizing good grades over health, I think, was a mentality that got me to UVA. But since I’ve gotten here, where everyone is successful, everyone wants good grades, that’s no longer my personality trait. You have to have something else you care about.
I’ve come to care a lot for rugby. Over the past few years I would always miss rugby practices to do homework or study for exams or just to work in a physics lab to put in some extra hours that I didn’t necessarily need. I realized one of my favorite parts of UVA has been that rugby team. So over the past two months I’ve sometimes pushed that homework back to go to rugby practice and make the games.
What was your favorite or most memorable educational experience at UVA Engineering, and why? Was there someone who helped you along your journey?
My favorite part of the engineering program has been the Rodman Council. That’s what I’ve invested myself in the most at UVA. I was Rod Council co-president as a third year, and this year I was the research chair and coordinated our first research symposium. That community has been somewhere where I feel like what I’m doing is important and worthwhile. It’s really valuable to students to feel that we can actually do something that matters. I feel like I had a chance to do that with Rod Council.
There were a lot of people who helped me along my journey. I met someone through the Virginia alumni mentoring program, Matt Muckle. I met with him one time and he connected me with two astronomers at the [National Radio Astronomy Observatory] because I said I wanted to try astrophysics. He really put his name on the line advocating for me after meeting with me just once. I met with these two astronomers, Ilsang Yoon and Bjorn Emonts. They generously took me under their wing and created a project for me and were endlessly patient as I slowly learned the ropes. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. They took a chance on me, brought me into astronomy, gave me the opportunity to learn about that, and that’s now what I want to do for the rest of my life.
What’s next for you?
I just accepted an offer from [the University of California] Berkeley astrophysics Ph.D. program. I am still on that same life plan to become a professor and do research and am super excited to continue that at Berkeley. So, I’ll be there for the next five or six years. I’ll apply my computer science and physics background to conduct research in computational/theoretical astrophysics or cosmology. It’s a little nerve-wracking because I don’t have a research project or advisor yet; I’ll have to get there and figure it out. It’s going to be an exciting, new experience.
What positive impact do you hope to make in the future? Is there a big societal challenge you’d like to help solve?
I want to be a professor of astrophysics. My driving sense of purpose is to help us try to understand the universe and answer that big question: How it all works. I want to answer that question through my own research. But I can be just as valuable in that mission by educating the next generation of scientists working on that same question. If I can help train up the next round of scientists, the impacts I can make there are probably even larger than the impacts I can make through my research alone.
A big aspect of that is to shape the culture of that field. I think gender equality and diversity, equity and inclusion in academia, especially physics, is a big area for improvement. I want to bring some of my background in advocating for gender rights to work on [diversity, equity and inclusion] in physics; that’s somewhere I can make a difference. A lot of people seem to think these problems don’t exist anymore. But that is one place where there are still concrete disparities in representation, how men and women are treated, how minorities are treated, and what access is granted to these different groups of people. I would really like to impact that.
How has UVA Engineering prepared you for your future, for following your dreams or personal mission?
I’ve been incredibly supported by the Engineering School, primarily through my academic advisor Claire Culver. She helped me every step along the way. I showed up the first week of classes with my spreadsheet of my four-year plan for college. She helped me slow down a little bit and make a plan that actually worked. From that very first meeting, she helped me design the path toward my goals and encouraged me every step along the way. With her help I was able to use the engineering science curriculum to design a program focused on science and research along with the computer science tools useful in those fields, to shape the curriculum into exactly what I wanted for my college experience.
In one first-year class, synthesis design, I learned how to approach and think about problems from an engineering perspective. A major focus of the class was problem identification. We have to ask ourselves: What’s the actual issue here? Oftentimes it’s not the question we are initially asked to answer. I’ve applied that way of thinking to research and to life in general, and it translated a lot into what I’ve learned in science, technology and society classes.
UVA Engineering also left me with the idea that UVA engineers can think critically to solve problems. In science, technology and society courses, we are taught that we should be leaders in this world, shaping policy. If it’s a subject we are knowledgeable about, infrastructure or technology that we as engineers designed, then we should be the ones making decisions on how to fix these things, not just doing what we’re told and coming up with technical solutions. I really like that way of thinking and I will take that forward with me.
I’m not just going to solve the technical problem given to me, I’m going to think about what is the important problem we should be solving.
What advice would you give to engineering students who are just starting out?
My practical advice is to go talk to your advisor. They will help you. Meet them, get to know them, and lean on them.
I don’t need to give incoming UVA Engineering students advice on how to be academically successful. They got here. They know how to do well in their classes and how to succeed. So, I think the advice incoming UVA Engineering students need is what I had to learn, to value everything else. Make sure you have a full life and you know what you care about. Don’t just go through your day passively, doing what’s on your calendar. Think about what you are choosing to make time for right now. What are your priorities, and does your schedule reflect that?