Physics major has eyes set on healthcare

Katherine Banowetz stands out as the only woman in her senior year physics class.

Nationwide the representation of women in physics remains low, and according to the American Physical Society (APS) women accounted for only 20% of bachelor’s degrees in physics in 2015. At OSU, there are only a handful of women physics majors.

Katie is unfazed by her distinctive status in the field and plans to power ahead as a physicist after graduation. She will begin a Ph.D. in medical physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she will focus her research on creating better MRI scans to detect and diagnose cystic fibrosis. Katie hopes to work as a radiation physicist in a clinical setting after completing her doctoral studies.

She attributes some of her confidence and passion for the subject to the presence of women professors in the OSU Physics Department.

“I always felt very supported because there were role models. We have a really high percentage of women physics professors compared to other schools,” said Katie. “The first professor who taught me in the Paradigms in Physics curriculum was a woman.”

Katie was introduced to science and math early as a child by her parents and fell in love with them. Her father, a USDA biology researcher, would often take young Katie to his lab where she would gaze at the equipment and observe lab procedures and experiments.

A native of Corvallis, Katie took some time to find her way to OSU Physics. First she attended Macalester College in Minnesota for a year and then transferred to OSU because she thought she would get “a better science education at a research university.”

“At Macalester, my advisor said, ‘You are taking all math and science classes, but you are at a liberal arts school. That’s weird.’ And I replied, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Katie kept searching for the right academic fit after she arrived at OSU. Interested in the role of physics in healthcare, she spent one term studying radiation health physics in the Department of Nuclear Engineering.

However, Katie quickly tired of her classes on nuclear reactors and decided a broader education in physics was in her best interest.

“I missed the modern physics classes and the problem solving I had at Macalester,” said Katie. To learn more about human biology and healthcare, Katie did coursework in anatomy and physiology at OSU.

It turns out Katie was right about the clear advantages of studying science at OSU. She had a fantastic summer research experience last year working on the world famous Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project in Hanford, Washington.

OSU Physics majors have access to a variety of exciting Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) that provide them meaningful exposure to an area of interest and can jump start their careers as researchers. Banowetz described her research experience at LIGO as profoundly transformative one that strengthened her identity as a young scientist.

“LIGO is such a big collaboration, and I was on a site with hundreds of scientists from all over the world. I really enjoyed it because the program let me interact with other women in physics. It was really eye-opening to see what you can do with physics and how a large-scale research operation works.”

As a research intern, Banowetz studied the effects of external environmental signals on the interferometer and wrote a computer program to calculate these effects. She is currently writing her senior physics thesis on her LIGO research.

Her most rewarding experiences within the Physics Department have come from her coursework in the rigorous and highly regarded Paradigms in Physics undergraduate curriculum. Katie enjoyed the intensive physics classes and the collaborative group problem solving. She believes they have given her the skills to succeed in her profession.

Outside the classroom, Katie found ample opportunities to pursue her deep interest in public service and helping people. She cherishes her experience as a member of Delta Delta Delta, the amazing relationships with her sorority sisters and the opportunity to raise money for cancer research at St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

“Just being able to give back that way has made my life a lot better,” said Katie.

She offers the following advice to future science majors:

“Try to do as much research as you can. Look for summer research. It makes you more interested in what’s going on in your classes, you feel connected to what you have done. It gives you more experience in the field than other people and that will come in handy.”

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