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Graduate Spotlight: Physics degree leads Howland to career at prestigious Fermilab

Kim Chaudoin | 

Jocelyn Howland

When Seattle native Jocelyn Howland enrolled as a freshman in fall 2020, she had her mind set on a biomedical physics major with aspirations for medical school, having worked as an emergency medical technician during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

However, her trajectory shifted after she took her first physics class the second semester of college with Professor Alan Bradshaw, sparking a passion not for medicine, but for the mysteries of physics. Now, Howland is set to complete her Bachelor of Science degree in physics in May and is ready to embark on a career at the prestigious Fermilab, the premiere high-energy physics lab in the nation.

"I fell in love with the problem-solving aspect of physics," Howland reflects of that first class. “Learning physics has completely shifted my view of the universe, and I now observe everyday phenomena with a whole new perspective. The thing I enjoy most about physics is the more you learn the more questions are raised. I often find myself discussing with my classmates how the more we learn the more we realize the immense amount of information we do not know which is humbling but also very exciting.”

This curiosity drove her to pursue advanced research opportunities. She studied the structure of spacetime as a research intern with Lipscomb Professor of Physics Michael Watson. Through this assignment she learned to read complex scientific papers, how to ask the right questions and computational skills. 

Learning physics has completely shifted my view of the universe and I now observe everyday phenomena with a whole new perspective. — Jocelyn Howland

In summer 2023, Howland was accepted into a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and her project was partly sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the NASA SHIELD DRIVE Center. During this internship, she studied solar shock waves in the interstellar medium which included solving complex mathematical equations. Howland had the opportunity to interact with leading scientists in heliophysics and NASA scientists, learning how to effectively communicate and present research to both experts in the field and people with little knowledge of the topic. 

“I started this internship feeling very out of my league as I thought I didn't know enough physics to succeed,” shares Howland, who is part of Lipscomb’s Honors College. “I left the internship realizing that even experts don't have all the answers, and that it is really dedication and hard work that leads to success not necessarily knowledge.”

Howland has also been active in Lipscomb’s Student Scholars Symposium, presenting posters the last two years and enjoying learning about her peers’ research and sharing her own. She also relaunched the physics club this year and served as its president. 

“The physics department is very small and I have found that the physics club brings us together as a community and provides a space where the physics majors can share struggles and successes associated with physics,” she says. 
Being part of a smaller department also provided Howland an opportunity to get to know professors in the department. “All of the physics professors have hugely impacted my success in one way or another,” she says.  

Department Chair Randy Bybee inspired Howland to “eagerly pursue” mathematically challenging physics problems. She says, “His excitement about integrating calculus into his physics lectures is what ultimately led to my success during my internship at UAH and NASA.”

She credits Bradshaw with encouraging her to challenge herself to get out of her comfort zone, including traveling to Alabama to present research at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). At the weeklong conference, she was assigned a roommate whom she did not know. That individual now works at Fermilab and alerted Howland to the job opportunity there. 

“And, I can always rely on Dr. Watson to uplift me when I'm feeling discouraged,” she admits. “He helped me find courage when I presented a research poster in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting which is the biggest science conference held in the United States.”

Lipscomb’s focus on service has also been of particular interest to Howland. She has been involved in the LIFE Program, a program through which inside students at the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center (DJRC) learn alongside “outside” or traditional Lipscomb students to earn college credit. She has been involved for four semesters, serving as a math tutor to pre-college students in the prison for three of them. This semester Howland is enrolled in the “Families and Spirituality” course taught by Chris Gonzalez, professor and director of the marriage and family therapy program, at DJRC.

“This experience has completely shifted my perspective on life and specifically success,” shares Howland. “Talking with the women in the prison has shown me how my success is highly correlated to my fortune of being born into a family that has the resources to help me grow. Many people are not as lucky and are born into, what seems like, an inevitable trajectory to failure. I am so thankful to Lipscomb for attempting to shift this trajectory from failure to success by offering higher education in prisons.”

Howland says she has enjoyed her time at Lipscomb. “Being a physics major has been an extremely challenging and humbling experience but looking back at all I have accomplished is incredibly rewarding,” she says. 

Following graduation in May, Howland will head to Batavia, Illinois, to begin her role as an accelerator operator at Fermilab, where she will work in the main control area and occasionally in the field to maintain the operation of the accelerator complex. 

“The accelerator complex is their most powerful particle accelerator and just one part of it consists of a loop two miles in circumference. Essentially an accelerator is a massive and highly complex science machine and so the role of an accelerator operator acts as sort of a combination of a technician, an engineer and a physicist,” she explains. “I am incredibly grateful to be offered this position and it has shown me how much hard work can really pay off. I am so excited to start this role because it allows me to apply what I have learned in physics to solve a wide variety of problems related to such an important machine in the field of physics.”