UM-Flint physics student represents university at national conference

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Alex Bakhsh of UM-Flint Physics presenting research at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics
Alex Bakhsh of UM-Flint Physics presenting research at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

Alex Bakhsh is a junior at UM-Flint completing a major in physics and a minor in mathematics. In early 2018, she attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) and presented research from her program. The conference was created to help undergraduate women network, gain professional experience, and learn about graduate schools and professions in physics. The conference is supported by the National Science Foundation, the American Physical Society, and the Department of Energy.

"I am proud that Ms. Bakhsh was able to attend such a meaningful gathering, and that she was able to represent our university and the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) with such high-level research," said CAS Dean Susan Gano-Phillips. "We want all of our students to have these empowering and valuable experiences because we know they have a significant impact on their current studies and lives after graduation."

At the conference, Bakhsh presented black hole research that she's been conducting with Rajib Ganguly, associate professor of physics at UM-Flint. The project involves data collected with the Hubble Telescope.

"Supermassive black holes that exist at the center of galaxies emit an incredible amount of energy in the form of what's referred to as quasars that are fed by the 'ring' of matter that surrounds these black holes," explained Bakhsh. "These rings are referred to as accretion disks. We study these phenomena in order to understand how these supermassive black holes formed and, by proxy, the birthing and formation of galaxies at the beginning of our universe."

Bakhsh enjoys the expansive and exclusive nature  of the project. "I get to work with black holes and Hubble data obtained specifically for our school and our research," she enthused. "Every day I feel like I'm living the dreams of my six-year-old self."

"I get to work with incredible people, on material that is ever exciting and challenging," said Bakhsh. "I had no clue how to tackle any of the research when it was first presented to me, but because of the awesome people I work with, I'm constantly learning something new."

The CUWiP Conference Experience

At the physics conference, Bakhsh was able to shine as a researcher, presenting to the scientific community for the first time. She was also able to learn some valuable personal and professional lessons. "As much as I love my department, it can still be lonely being a woman studying physics," she said. "Having the opportunity to speak, listen to, and hang out with so many other brilliant women in their fields was absolutely inspiring."

A highlight of Bakhsh's time at the physics conference: a positive ion particle accelerator tour.
A highlight of Bakhsh's time at the physics conference: a tour of a positive ion particle accelerator.

"I struggle a lot with Imposter Syndrome, which is the mindset that all your success and achievements have been by luck or by accident, and that eventually, someone will find out that you're actually an imposter in your field," continued Bakhsh. "A lot of women in science struggle with it; even the great Maya Angelou fought to overcome it. It was incredible to find that even these brilliant women scientists at the conference struggled with it, even now, in the prime of their careers."

Bakhsh said, "A quote from a Q & A that will stick with me forever is, '…you are very, very intelligent, and I'm sorry that anyone ever made you feel as though you weren't.' It's almost an internal mantra for me now when I ever really start doubting myself."

Finding Support in UM-Flint Physics

Bakhsh has found a supportive environment with UM-Flint Physics, in the classroom and the research lab. She credits her colleagues in the program as being the best part of her time at the university.

"Everyone is so open, helpful, and friendly," she reflected. "Within a month of starting at UM-Flint, every professor in the department would greet me in the hallways when we passed, often as 'Ms. Bakhsh.' I felt immediately included and respected. They helped me overcome my greatest fear of starting here in physics, and treated me as a colleague and an equal. I feel like I actually will be a physicist someday, and won't be questioned about my ability because of my gender."

Two faculty members in particular have had a significant impact on Bakhsh's undergraduate experience. She noted that Dr. Ganguly should be recognized for "believing in me from the very first meeting we had, for pushing me to go to conferences, and to be a part of his research team almost immediately. He continues to inspire and encourage my scientific pursuits all the time."

"I also have to mention Dr. Biplob Barman," she added. "My first semester of calc-based physics was with him, and it was his first semester at UM-Flint. His encouragement was paramount to my success. I went from being fearful that I simply wasn't cut out to be a physicist, to feeling like whatever grad school I dreamed of was well within my reach."

Dr. Barman recalled Bakhsh's high-level thinking about class concepts and her keen sense of curiosity. "I thoroughly enjoyed teaching Alex, as her questions were always unique in a very creative and intelligent way; questions that would make the instructor think," he said. "Curiosity is a great attitude to have as an aspiring physicist and she has plenty of it." He also noted Bakhsh's bright future and his belief that she will no doubt become a role model for others in the field.

Looking to the Future

Bakhsh already has advice for those considering physics as a field of study. "Don't be scared to fail, because you will, a lot. That's okay though! We all do," she assured. "I've done poorly on tests, struggled through classes, and have been scared that I wasn't cut out for physics. Don't let it discourage you. You don't have to know everything, that's why you're in school."

She also noted that UM-Flint Physics is a good place to start. "In the brief time that I've been at UM-Flint, I've had more faculty attention than I would have at a bigger school. Because of this, I've had more opportunities, support, and guidance, and I believe that's been more beneficial than a specific name on my degree would ever have been," said Bakhsh.

"Grad schools do care a little bit about what school you went to, but they care a whole lot more about the experiences you've had, and the opportunities you took advantage of while in undergrad, and UM-Flint has an overabundance of that," she said.

When she graduates, Bakhsh fully intends to pursue a doctorate of astrophysics. "At the conference, I actually heard from a couple of other doctorates in their field that they had encountered other students from UM-Flint in their studies, and found that they were sometimes more prepared than they were from their own experiences. I have full confidence that my department, and the UM-Flint Math Department, will fully prepare me (as much as you can be) to tackle grad school."

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