Alexandra Boehmke attended The Montessori Community School back in the early 2000s. She recently came back to talk with our Middle School students about the path she took toward a career in physics.
What has your journey been since your time at TMCS/Inly?
I went to Cohasset Middle-High School, then to the Commonwealth School in Boston for the last two years of high school. I earned a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College in 2017, then moved to England where I earned a master’s degree in physics from the University of Cambridge. I am now a Ph.D. candidate there, in the NanoPhotonics Centre, a research group at the Cavendish Laboratory.
Tell us about your field of study and the work you’ve been doing.
I am a research student in the NanoPhotonics Centre. When I began my Ph.D., the director of the group suggested the starting point for a project that I work on for the next three years. I work independently building an optical experiment and writing analysis code. My peers and I collaborate on shared code, mostly programs controlling hardware for automated experiments, and share ideas for solving problems and interpreting results in regular meetings.
One of our main research goals is to develop a technique for surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS). This technique has many applications in industry and fundamental chemistry. It is founded on the physics of light-matter interaction, between visible light and molecules and metal surfaces. Our experiments use lasers, microscopes, and gold nanostructures to measure the vibrational spectra of small numbers of molecules. We and collaborators around Europe simulate the spectra in order to interpret our measured results. My project is to extend our SERS technique from infrared to terahertz frequencies.
What sparked your interest in the sciences?
It’s hard to say what sparked my interest in science because I have been drawn to physics and astronomy for as long as I can remember. Certainly part of the attraction is that it’s challenging. Another is that it addresses the types of questions I have always been asking, like “what makes the sky blue?” I can also say for certain that three teachers, in particular, inspired and fostered my interest: Brien Nelson at The Montessori Community School, Mr. Jones at Cohasset Middle School, and Farhad Riahi at Commonwealth School.
It was really cool to hear Alexandra talk because I’ve always really wanted to go into Physics; I love learning about why things happen. I was especially interested in understanding how she got to that point in her career and built on the things she already knew.Connor Cigna ’23
What lessons have you taken with you from your experience at TMCS/Inly?
Ph.D. work is independent; each day I have to decide what I need to be doing. I may have been more open to accepting this challenge because Montessori taught me a form of independent learning from a young age.
Working in an optics laboratory involves sharing expensive equipment and using it to build one’s own experiment. Montessori may have instilled in me the sense of careful responsibility with which I now care for the equipment I use and return it nicely to its shelf when finished.
I think the arts program taught by Pam Golden gave me a lifelong desire to leave artistic marks on the world and society around me, such as building a labyrinth or raising and releasing a butterfly to celebrate a rite of passage.
What was it like to return to Inly? What made an impression on you?
Even though I’m twice as tall now so the parts of the playground and classrooms that I remember look smaller, overall the growth of the school is impressive. I was most impressed though by how polite, attentive, and sincere the Middle School students were during my presentation and in conversations afterward. I left my visit hoping that I can afford to send my children to such a wonderful school someday.
It was nice to be able to see someone who actually is in the science world and not just in medicine but in physics. It was a confirmation for me that doing that type of science work professionally is possible.Axel Pena ’23
What would you like to convey to today’s students?
Yes, the Ph.D. students and postdoctoral physicists I work with at the University of Cambridge are all very smart, but to succeed in this field, the most important things are to be self-motivated, hard-working, and persistent. Do not think that you are not smart or talented enough to do something. Do not look around at the other people in a field and think, I don’t look like them so I’m not supposed to be here. Pursue what interests you and, if you want it enough, you will find a way to do it.