Nicolette Puskar does research in a lab as she pursues her Ph.D.
Nicolette Puskar '19 does research in a lab at the University of California, Berkeley, as she pursues her Ph.D. in physical chemistry. 

Studying in a STEM field while pursuing interests in music is among the draws that brought Nicolette Puskar ’19 to Lawrence University in the first place.

Now, five years after walking across the Commencement stage as a double-degree graduate with majors in chemistry and music (vocal performance), Puskar is keeping both science and music close to her heart. 

She is working toward her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, doing research in quantum dynamics in gas-phase atoms and molecules using attosecond noncollinear four-wave-mixing spectroscopy. She is four years into a doctorate program that takes five to six years to complete.

Nicolette Puskar '19
Nicolette Puskar '19

Her music, though, is never far away. Puskar spent the year following her graduation from Lawrence performing with the Knoxville Opera in Knoxville, Tennessee, while working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She paused music performances during the COVID-19 pandemic, but come April 22, she will return to the stage in a big way—joining a choral performance at Carnegie Hall.

“Singing remains important to me for so many reasons,” Puskar said. “The main one, though, is that, simply, singing is part of my identity.”

Her post-Lawrence path

While working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during a “gap year” to gain more research experience in physical chemistry, Puskar auditioned for and received an opera chorus position with Knoxville Opera. She also joined the Knoxville Choral Society, where she performed as a soprano soloist in an early 2020 concert of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

A month later, the pandemic would shut down most musical performances around the globe.

Integrate intellectual and musical virtuosity in a supportive community that will empower you to find your musical path. 

The silver lining, Puskar said, is the pandemic allowed her to put all her energy into settling into her graduate program—virtually at first—and passing her qualifying exam.

That pause on her musical performances ends with the Carnegie Hall concert, which comes courtesy of an invite from one of her former choir directors, Maestro José Daniel Flores-Caraballo. It’ll be an evening of music by Norwegian composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo, among Puskar’s favorites.

“Choir has always held a special place in my heart,” she said. “Some of my most cherished memories during my time at Lawrence are singing in Concert Choir and with my chamber group at First Congregational UCC.”

All about science

At Berkeley, Puskar is excited about the progress she’s making in the Ph.D. program, and the research that’s at the core of her studies.

“My research centers on using the shortest laser pulses to reveal the quantum secrets of atoms and molecules,” she said.

As you grow in the major, you'll gain experience with computational and experimental work with advanced chemistry lab classes.

Once she graduates, Puskar hopes to find a postdoctoral position, “a short-term position where I can diversify my scientific skill set outside of my Ph.D. focus.”

From there, Puskar is looking to build a career in academia, inspired, she said, by science faculty she learned from while at Lawrence. She singled out chemistry professors Allison Fleshman and Deanna Donohoue in particular.

“The individualized experiences I received at Lawrence shaped me into the scientist that I am today, and my academic journey would not have been possible without the support of my undergraduate professors,” she said.

Now, Puskar said, becoming a professor at a small liberal arts college is her “ultimate” career goal—with a dose of music on the side.

“This probably goes without saying, but I strongly believe in the value of a liberal arts education and that studying a broad range of subjects winds up mutually benefitting each other,” Puskar said. “For example, in attosecond science, we generate high-order harmonics of the original beam frequency to make attosecond-duration laser pulses, which is directly analogous to musical instrument design and the respective wave mechanics that make an orchestra sound beautiful. I want to be the kind of chemistry professor that supports students who wish to explore outside topics, just like I was supported at Lawrence.”