About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.
Megan Pickett always has her eyes to the sky.
The Lawrence University associate professor of physics is an educator of and an advocate for the night sky, inspiring students to pursue the wonders of astronomy.
Pickett, who has focused much of her research through the years on the formation of solar systems, joined the Lawrence physics department in 2006 after four years as a research associate at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and six years on the faculty at Purdue University.
In addition to her classroom work and research projects, she’s working with students to gather and present Celestial Histories, an oral history of astronomy and personal connections to the night sky; she delivered a Convocation address last year focused on lessening pollution that impacts our view of the night sky; and she has periodically held Earth Hour events on Main Hall Green to teach all comers about star gazing.
Pickett also has turned her attention to history. She is deep into writing a biography of Elda Anderson, a physics professor at Milwaukee-Downer College who became the first woman to chair the school’s Physics Department, did ground-breaking research for decades, and devoted the latter part of her career to health physics. She died in 1961, shortly before Milwaukee-Downer would merge with Lawrence. Pickett hopes to elevate her contributions to the world of science and her role in Milwaukee-Downer—and Lawrence—history.
Pickett holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Indiana University.
We caught up with her to talk about interests in and out of the classroom:
In the classroom
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
Oh my gosh, I want them to know no one is born an expert. I struggled so much during my undergraduate years. I was intimidated by my professors and only went to office hours once in four years, and I never spoke in any of my classes. As a physics student I was confused and lost—I didn’t earn my first A in physics until grad school. I know what it’s like to be frustrated and disappointed and lost. In fact, every year in our intro class (Physics 141), I assign a problem I got a 0 on, and every year our students ace it. I want our students to see they can really do this work, and feel that they belong.
Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?
I have a number of projects in the pipeline to different degrees—the Celestial Histories project, a solar system river walk—but I’m really excited about my biography of our own Elda Anderson. I’m working tirelessly to amplify her legacy as a researcher and teacher. More broadly, I want to shine a bright light on the women of Milwaukee-Downer College, and the integral part they play in who we are as a university.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?
Paris. I was a science and technical advisor for an opera on the Curies with Patrice Michaels in 2008-09. We studied the stories of three women who changed physics and the world (Marie, daughter Irène, granddaughter Hélène), and I was fortunate enough to interview Hélène for three hours about life with her famous parents and grandparents, and what it was like to be a woman in physics and chemistry during the quantum revolution. I also got to meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg while I was there, and we went scarf shopping at the U.S. Embassy, which was a delight.
Out of the classroom
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
I was the cartoonist for my school newspaper, and later freelanced for the Cornell Lunatic (Cornell’s version of the Harvard Lampoon). I miss that quite a bit, and wish I had taken more formal art training than I did. But I don’t for a second regret being an astronomer.
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
Late at night by the rabbit statues outside Briggs, with a telescope and a group of students. Nothing recharges my soul more than when I share my beloved night sky with our students.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?
As problematic as it is, I read Frank Herbert’s Dune every year—and the first three sequels. In terms of world building, few come quite as close, or as prescient, as Frank Herbert.
My favorite movie is Alien. It’s perhaps not the most realistic depiction of space travel, but it is the most realistic depiction of what life will be like when space travel becomes routine. And Sigourney Weaver. Sigh. She is my favorite. Really, any movie with Sigourney in it, now that I think of it.
As for a recording, that’s much tougher, but in the end, I have to go with The Cranberries’ Bury the Hatchet. Again, any Cranberries album would do, but this is my favorite (Animal Instinct, Shattered, Promises, Just My Imagination)—but the song You and Me is so beautiful and brings me to tears almost every time I hear it—from both happiness and sadness. Dolores was such a beautiful, tragically flawed person and performer. This song about missing her son while on tour just hits my feels every time I’m away from my family. The world is just not quite as beautiful without a Dolores Riordan in it, sadly—but at least her music lives on.