Murdock Foundation honors physicist Moira Gresham for her research prowess and dedication to mentoring women in science

Dark matter is a building block of the cosmos — without it, we can’t explain how the galaxy we know today exists. But current knowledge of dark matter is based entirely on observations of distant space — unlike other matter types, it has eluded study in lab experiments. To study dark matter, researchers must combine knowledge in a variety of fields: particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology.

That combination of the known and the unknown is one of the things that drew Moira Gresham to dark matter.

“I’ve always been interested in cosmology, the study of the universe. Then in college, I really liked my particle physics class,” said Gresham, the National Shipman Associate Professor of Physics at Whitman College. “Dark matter is an awesome marriage of particle physics and cosmology. You cannot think of dark matter without having some understanding of both of those things.”

A Matter of Gender

Dark matter is difficult to study in part because it is so hard to find and understand. Gresham’s work on the subject supports another type of elusive matter — women in physics.

“Physics is one of the worst of the physical sciences in terms of having gender balance,” said Gresham, who joined the Whitman faculty in 2011. “I am the only woman in my department, and I take that as an opportunity to try to reach out to women in physics. I feel like I’m particularly well suited to help address that problem.”

Each year, Gresham invites the women students studying physics over for a meal to talk about the gender dynamics at play in science classrooms. She also advises the Women in STEM club started last year by women students in physics and astronomy.

“I just want every person to pursue a career that they’re passionate about. I know, and evidence shows, that there are a lot of people who get dissuaded or don’t even think about a field in which they might actually be well suited because they don’t see anyone else like them doing that,” she said.

Teacher, Scholar, and Mentor

In recognition of her scientific research and her dedication to mentorship, this fall Gresham was awarded the 2018 Lynwood W. Swanson Promise for Scientific Research Award from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

“Moira established a strong, student-focused research program soon after she arrived at Whitman,” said Rachna Sinnott ’93, director of Grants and Foundation Relations, and part of the team who nominated Gresham for the award. “Importantly, Moira’s research has involved most of her students, from the six summer research students who are supported by her grants, to all of the students in her classes who learn from the examples of her research that she integrates into her lectures.”

In addition to the Swanson Promise award, Gresham received another grant from the Murdock Charitable Trust in 2014, and in 2017 was awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Gresham was able to use those grants to support research students in her lab.

“Moira’s mentoring of women in physics has had a tremendous impact on our students, especially because of the dearth of women in that field,” said Alzada Tipton, provost and dean of the faculty. “While Moira’s mere presence in the classroom and lab shows our students that somebody like them can ‘do’ physics, it is her absolute excellence as a teacher and scholar that makes her a truly transformational mentor for our female students in the sciences.”

Gresham wasn’t alone in being honored by Murdock this year: Carl E. Peterson Endowed Chair of Science and Professor of Physics Doug Juers received an honorable mention.

Gresham takes pride on being available for students of all genders, but feels a particular pull to help her women students overcome any difficulties they may face pursuing the sciences. She encourages her women students to have confidence in their knowledge and skills, and not to give up.

“That’s where I want to try to come in — to recognize that it is difficult. This is hard. You will struggle. That is normal,” she said. “If you like what you’re doing, keep going.”

A Physicist with a Difference

As a high schooler interested in physics in Cheney, Washington, Gresham said she was unfazed that other physicists — like Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking — didn’t look like her. As an undergraduate at Reed College, she took her first physics class from a woman, Professor Mary James.

“I was really starting to think, ‘Hey, I could have a career kind of like hers. And that sounds really appealing,’” Gresham said.

She went on to receive her master’s degree at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, and a doctorate in theoretical cosmology and particle phenomenology from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Gresham has published 16 articles in peer-reviewed journals and often collaborates with other women in her field.

This fall she wrapped up a sabbatical studying asymmetric dark matter, which looks at how the preponderance of matter over anti-matter in the universe is tied to the presence of dark matter. She will continue that work, funded by her NSF grant, over the next year.

She appreciates that Whitman allows faculty the flexibility to continue research while engaging with students.

“I’m forming close mentoring relationships in the pursuit of new knowledge in my field. That’s clearly very motivating for the students and a lot of fun for us both. I bring my research into my classes,” she said. “Whitman has a balance of research and teaching that I find to be appealing. It’s the teacher-scholar model — recognizing how each one can benefit the other. They feed one another.”