What if you could graduate from Southern and help develop advanced technology that provides a superior view of surgical margins of breast cancer, helping patients avoid re-excisions?
Or what if you graduated into a position where looking through telescopes to study black holes and star systems was your actual job?
How about being able to refer to yourself as a physicist or engineer?
Three outstanding students of the master of science program in applied physics are proof that you can do all that, and more.
Monica Kiehnle, Melissa Shea, and Torrie Sutherland are among the recent examples of Southern’s students of STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. And they have three words for fellow and future Southern students who aren’t sure they have what it takes to attain a STEM career.
Go for it.
Kiehnle, Shea and Sutherland are at varied stages in their physics master’s studies and are poised to transition from successful internships at Connecticut companies. They have done the work, experienced the anxieties, and fallen in love with the sciences that captured their interest at different points along the way.
“I felt way over my head. I was scared to apply,” Kiehnle said. “I asked a couple of friends to keep asking me if I had applied, I met with Professor [Matthew] Enjalran and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ He said, ‘You’ll be fine.’”
Kiehnle went through the master’s program as a part-time student and found the support of faculty to be a critical catalyst. But her biggest cheerleaders were her daughters, for whom Kiehnle had chosen to be a stay-at-home mother and teacher.
Home-schooling her children had taken priority for Kiehnle, who was born in Mexico City and originally was an industrial engineer and put her career on hold. What she thought would be a brief respite turned into a 21-year career pause.
Teaching physics to her daughters when they reached high school age set off the lightbulb in her mind. “When I was looking at colleges, I came across the master’s in physics at Southern and I said, ‘Wait, I can do this,’” she said.
While physics intrigued her, it was the nanotechnology track that hooked her. Kiehnle learned how to use a Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM), an instrument that uses a particle beam of electrons to visualize specimens and generate a highly magnified image.
“Materials behave differently when you’re talking about them at a very small scale; the properties change,” Kiehnle said. Once exposed to that technology, Kiehnle knew she had to take up a nanotechnology or optics learning track. “It sounded really cool,” she said.
While the studies were cool, they were beyond difficult, Kiehnle admitted. “Everything was a challenge. There was not a thing that was easy.”
It didn’t matter. For Kiehnle, who was going through a divorce, raising her daughters, and craving career satisfaction, the hard work was necessary. Her resolve is also her advice to students who are curious about pursuing a STEM career.
“Once you’re on this path, you just do what’s next. You have to lose track of the long term. Just survive this week. Just survive the next week. It was something I wanted to achieve, so there was never a time when I said I’m gonna give up,” she said.
For Shea, who’s finishing up her master’s in applied physics, early encouragement was affirming.
“Students don’t feel like they’re capable,” she said. “I felt like that for a good part of my middle and high school years. In high school physics, I got C’s. My friends, parents, and teachers encouraged me to go to college, and I knocked it out of the park.”
Last summer, Shea embraced an internship at Aperture Optical Sciences in Meriden, a company that makes high-tech mirrors and other optics for defense, aerospace, and high-power laser applications. The company was so pleased with her contributions, they’ve offered her a full-time job when she graduates this spring.
“Growing up, I was always interested in astronomy. It wasn’t until high school that I realized I need more of a physics background to get into astronomy. It wasn’t just looking at pretty stars,” said Shea.
Then there’s Torrie Sutherland, who always loved science but initially gravitated toward marine biology. It didn’t take long to realize that an elective course was calling her. “I fell in love with astronomy and said, ‘I need to do this.’”
She switcher her major to physics and never looked back.
“Physics and astronomy are so fundamental to everything in life. I wanted to know more,” Sutherland said.
The funny thing was, she had found high school physics too difficult. In fact, she hated it, and dropped it in her senior year. The irony is not lost on Sutherland now that she is plunging full steam ahead into a career as a physicist.
“I always loved looking up at the stars as a kid,” Sutherland said. “When I was applying to schools, I remember writing in my college essays that I wanted to work on research cruises that go to middle of the ocean and look at up stars without pollution.”
She had another validating moment when looking through school papers from seventh grade. “We had to create a timeline for the rest of our lives,” she said. “I was 12. I said, ‘Major in Physics.’ I wrote that as a joke,” she laughs now.
Now, Sutherland is finishing her master’s degree. She has a productive internship under her belt working part-time at Zygo in Middlefield, which makes high-end optics for advanced manufacturing. She’s currently writing an academic paper with her colleagues there. While she’s had a fantastic experience, Sutherland feels a pull toward the love of instrumentation that she discovered in her master’s program.
“Using the instruments to do the science, working with telescopes… If I end up working in an industry setting, it would be using measurement equipment. I love that,” Sutherland said.
Kiehnle, Shea, and Sutherland exemplify the abundant possibilities for students who pursue the STEM career path, said Physics Professor Elliott Horch, who mentored both Shea and Sutherland. His department is tackling the challenges of invisibility — that is, many people don’t know that Southern has an engineering program. Another unknown fact is the cutting-edge research that STEM students can immerse themselves in from year 1 in the program.
“People just aren’t aware of Southern in this way,” Horch said.
Add to that the challenge of recruiting students into the STEM fields, which often is simply because they don’t know that the opportunity exists for them.
“They don’t see themselves as being able to do it, or enjoying it,” said Christine Broadbridge, professor of physics and executive director of Research and Innovation at Southern.
Broadbridge said she’s spent most of her career promoting STEM to students — making an effort to extend the prospects to underserved communities who may have no exposure to the options available.
“It’s also about making a difference in the world, having a career path where you can make an impact. The opportunities that are out there that are very lucrative and where they can find enjoyment,” Broadbridge said.
Southern is doing its part to encourage future engineers, physicists, and other STEM professionals. The program connects students with industry partners for internship experiences. It provides strong mentorship relationships with professors who have deep experience in the STEM fields. As well, the program has a large external grant portfolio — almost $2 million — to help students navigate the challenges of funding their education.
“This is the golden era of STEM at Southern,” Broadbridge said.
Kiehnle, Shea, and Sutherland each said they’re enjoying their new titles as they prepare to launch their careers.
“I almost feel like an imposter,” Shea laughed. “I got my degree in astrophysics, my master’s in physics. I don’t have the ‘engineering’ education, but physics encompasses so many subjects and areas. I really am an engineer.”
“If this is your dream, you can do it,” she added.
Kiehnle graduated in December 2022 and has been offered a full-time job at the same company she interned with: Kubtec, a medical imaging company in Stratford. She’ll be a senior research and development engineer and project leader, with responsibility for robust technology specifications.
“She’ll be a product subject matter expert,” said Karla Palma, who was impressed with Kiehnle’s capabilities and hired her initially as an intern last year. Kiehnle’s motivation, natural leadership skills, and ability to delegate told Palma that this intern was meant for success. “She has been a bridge between engineering and the quality department,” Palma said.
More than that, Kiehnle’s warmth and life experience has enhanced the work culture at Kubtec. “She’s charming. It makes people confident to come to her.”
For some students, the idea of a STEM education is daunting, and all three women acknowledged that perseverance, confidence, and a good support network are important strategies for success.
“There is a lot of work,” Sutherland said. “You don’t have to be the best at math, but you have to put in the effort to get better at it. It can get you down, sometimes. But if STEM and pursuing something in physics is something you are passionate about, then you can do it. It’ll take work, it’s going to be hard, but if you’re passionate about it, it’ll be worth it.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the applied physics master’s program, or STEM studies, visit SouthernCT.edu/academics/physics/programs.