Most people who encounter difficult math problems ask themselves, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”
But Madison Reich '24, a star physics researcher and rising senior at Trinity University, has the opposite problem.
“I’ve always been looking for ways to use math that’s not in a math class,” Reich says. “That’s why I liked physics, because it was the most ‘math-applied’ science I could find. I love that challenge of being able to sit down and work at a problem for a while: It’s just really satisfying once you get to the answer.”
Reich’s passion for calculation has her on a track towards a doctorate in astrophysics, and it’s earned her a prestigious honor: She’s been named a 2023 Goldwater Scholar, one of about 400 winners nationwide, selected from a pool of over 5,000 nominated college sophomores and juniors.
“Winning this award, I’m proud of myself for it, which is not something I’m used to admitting to myself,” Reich says. “But that is how I feel about it. This award is something that I'm proud of, and it’s something that I [think will] bring a little bit of pride to Trinity, too.”
After graduating, Reich has her telescope set on conducting research as a high-energy observational astronomer and wants to one day teach courses at the university level.
But for now, she’s still enjoying life at Trinity, an upcoming summer internship at an observatory, and finding new ways for her field to spill over into other classes.
A graduate of Churchill High School right here in San Antonio, Reich says she “got really into physics in high school because of my physics teacher, who was a Trinity alumni.”
The more Reich heard about Trinity, the more intrigued she was in a place where STEM fields aren’t segmented away from other disciplines and where smaller class sizes mean better connections with classmates and faculty.
“Honestly, making friends with my peers and actually having a relationship with them outside of being in a giant lecture hall with a bunch of people who are just struggling through their classes, that’s what I like about Trinity,” Reich says. “Here, students are making study groups, and we’re actually able to make partnerships with professors.”
Reich says she’s most enjoyed working with her research adviser, physics professor David Pooley, Ph.D., the one who ended up encouraging her to apply for the Goldwater Scholarship.
“Dr. Pooley is such a great professor, and he's really supportive of all the students,” Reich says.
And she’s also enjoyed a series of literature classes with modern languages and literatures professor Heather Sullivan, Ph.D., where Reich has been getting her language credit by taking a couple of German classes.
“I really like her teaching style, so I followed her into her comparative literature course on German fairytales, which has been really fun,” Reich says. “It's kind of a nice break from a heavy STEM load to go read Brothers Grimm fairytales for 50 minutes.”
But where Reich goes, STEM is never truly far behind.
“There were certain aspects in my fairy tales class where I looked at things from a physicist’s point of view, just being kind of scrutinous in the way that you look at things,” Reich explains. “I somehow managed to integrate physics into a fairytale paper, which critiqued the way that we formulate fairytales.
“There was one scholar who said that you can break down any fairytale into 31 different functions, with seven different (types) of characters that you could have,” she continues. “But I wrote a paper critiquing how he made too small of an individual unit, the way we think about subatomic particles like electrons dividing atoms. So I don't know if it was a super-coherent argument, but Dr. Sullivan seemed to like it.”
And Reich also finds time to play the flute in Trinity's Symphonic Wind Ensemble, as one of countless Trinity musicians who are able to perform without having to commit to being music majors. If anything, Reich says, it helps to be a physics major in the ensemble:
“It’s pretty great because there really is a significant percentage of physics majors that are in bands specifically, and like five or six of us in Wind Ensemble, so it’s kind of nice to have those friends,” Reich says. “Music is just a fun outlet to just go play for a little bit.”
Reich says she’s been pleased to discover that her career field is full of other energetic people who care about having fun with physics just as much as she does.
“For the first summer research I did at Trinity last Summer  after I’d learned the ropes, I actually went to a national astronomy conference in Seattle, which was really cool,” Reich says. “I did not realize how big the field of astronomy was until it was like the first conference after Covid, and everybody who was there told me, ‘This is the craziest conference I've ever been to.’”
“The conference was huge,” Reich continues, “but all of the people that I met were so kind and so encouraging of young people getting into the field, and that made it super exciting to be there.”
Before her summer research experience, Reich says she didn’t know about this side of the world of physics.
“When you think about the definition of a physicist, maybe people just picture Albert Einstein,” Reich says, laughing. “But when I went to that conference, I realized how diverse this field is. I wasn't the only woman in the room, which was nice to see.”
Sky’s the Limit
This summer, Reich is excited to announce she’s landed an internship at the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket, Massachusetts. As part of a 10-week program designed for undergraduates looking to get research experience, Reich will be given a project, an adviser, and then a chance to present her work at a national conference.
“This is super exciting,” Reich says. “This is a specific type of opportunity that you can only get at an observatory instead of an academic institution, so there's also a lot of public outreach components, like running an open sky night for the public later in the summer. That's something that I'm definitely excited for.”
When Reich returns as a senior this fall, she plans on adding a pair of minors in math and astronomy. “I have one more class to go for both of those,” she adds.
And, as Reich eagerly exclaims, she’ll finally get to connect with Pooley on a subject that blends her stargazing with her love of math:
“I finally get to take astrophysics, which is only offered every other spring,” Reich says. “It’s with Dr. Pooley, it's all of the topics that I've been hearing about in snippets, but now I’m excited to get to actually sit down and learn it.”
For Reich, there couldn’t be a better way to close out her time at Trinity. “It’s gonna be good,” she says.