Rachel Harris

As a freshman, I expected my honors physics class to require slogging through endless problem sets. Instead, I encountered a genial, irreverent professor who encouraged me to think of physics as a way to cultivate a boundless curiosity about the universe. This inquisitive spirit serves as a reminder that learning should be an adventure, not a chore – a message that has remained with me throughout my years at Pitt.

My experience as an undergraduate researcher in chemistry has been no less exhilarating. I focus on developing materials that are electrically responsive: they change their physical properties when current is applied, becoming harder and more rigid or softer and more flexible. These materials have applications in improving the fit of prosthetic limbs and creating customizable orthotics. In the summer and fall of 2011, I received a Brackenridge Research Fellowship. This award not only allowed me to concentrate on my research goals, but it also introduced me to amazing people who had projects in subjects ranging from computational biology to poetry. Being a part of the Brackenridge community strengthened my conviction that people with any major, any GPA, and any bold idea will always have a place in the honors college.

In addition to my research, I have spent nearly two years as an undergraduate teaching assistant. I have taught weekly organic chemistry recitations in the hopes that I can turn a frequently dreaded class into a surmountable – and perhaps even an enjoyable – challenge. Seeing a student light up as a difficult idea suddenly makes sense has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my college career.

An active member of Pitt’s student chapter of the American Chemical Society (ACS) since my sophomore year, I have volunteered as a peer tutor on campus and have participated in outreach programs to introduce elementary and high school students to the marvels of science. Since being elected Co-President of ACS last spring, I have the added responsibilities of planning our schedule, coordinating with the other officers, and running events. I enjoyed my experience with scientific outreach so much that in July 2011, I became the Outreach Coordinator for the newly formed Pittsburgh Area Women Chemists Committee, which shares my goals for promoting science education among girls and young women.

With the tireless support and guidance of the UHC’s phenomenal advising staff, I have applied for national fellowships to help fund my graduate studies in materials chemistry. I plan to spend my time in graduate school researching new materials for use in solar cells.