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Dublin High School Alum Ariel Graykowski Accepted into UCLA’s Space Physics PhD Program

May 19, 2015

Dublin High School Alum Ariel GraykowskiThe latest entry in’s popular Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) series profiles Dublin High School Class of 2011 alum and UC Davis Class of 2014 graduate Ariel Graykowski. Ms. Graykowski talks about her love of physics and how her college journey will be continuing in UCLA’s PhD program for Space Physics. What triggered your interest in science?

Ariel Graykowski: “I was part of 4H in middle school and one of the available classes was astronomy, which I took for a few years. In high school I ended up really liking all of my math and physics classes, which is why I ended up pursuing physics in college. Discovering how things work in a science class made me curious how other things work, which led to taking more science classes to find out! One of my favorite classes at Dublin High School was Ms. Lewis’ physics class.” Did you enter UC Davis knowing you’d be majoring in astrophysics or did that happen later?

Graykowski: “I entered as a physics major and along the way took an astronomy class which reminded me of my time in 4H. I didn’t realize astrophysics was an option; I spoke with my college counselor and learned there was a physics major with an emphasis in astrophysics. Astrophysics is the study of space – from how planets rotate, to the birth of stars, to what happened right after the Big Bang and the cosmos were formed. It’s also the math behind the dynamics of the planets.” How does studying physics differ in high school vs. college?

Graykowski: “In high school the focus is mostly on classical mechanics, basic forces, things like if you throw a ball how far will it go. In college we started learning about electrodynamics and quantum dynamics which were completely new and different from high school.” Many students talk about hitting a wall in college and having to fight through that period to stay on track. Did you ever experience that challenge?

UC Davis Astronomy Class at ObservatoryGraykowski: “There were definitely times when I wasn’t sure I’d make it, that I’d fail and have to re-take a class. Taking a class over the summer that I needed for my major did help me finish on time. When I was struggling I didn’t know what to do at first; I went in and spoke with my professors and told them I was worried I would fail. They were really helpful, they helped me better understand the material and reassured me that everyone else is on the same page, and that I should speak with other students. I did and formed study groups. Study groups were the key for me. It easy to think you are alone, that you are the only one struggling, if you don’t ask for help or talk to other students.” Did you have an opportunity to complete any internships during your time in college?

Graykowski: “I worked in a geology lab for a year and I’m still working there now. I was taking an astrobiology class and ended up really liking the professor. During his office hours one day I asked him about his research, which ended up being the study of asteroid samples. He melts down asteroids in his lab, analyzes how they are made and figures out what our solar system is made of. I asked if I could be part of his research, and he signed me up on the spot!

“I facilitate the research, clean apparatus, and load the machines. What I really got out of the experience, however, was branching out. A lot of people in physics stay in the physics building. By working in the geology building I was able to meet a lot of new people that didn’t even realize we had an astronomy program in physics!” At what point did you decide that an undergrad degree wouldn’t be enough and that you’d pursue post graduate studies?

Ariel Graykowski (right) with friend by a telescope at observatoryGraykowski: “In high school I always assumed I’d go to grad school, but going through college I went back and forth a lot – sometimes feeling sick of school and wanting to get a job after graduating, and then getting excited again and wanting to go further and learn more. There is a lot of pressure from other students and from professors to go for a PhD in physics. That pressure started stressing me out and I worried I couldn’t do it, but once I started the research position in the lab I was able to talk to other post-grad and post-doc students who were really happy with what they were doing. I also talked to my physics professors and they believed in me, they were confident I’d get my PhD, and that made me feel really good.” What is the process you went through to get accepted into UCLA’s PhD program?

Graykowski: “It’s similar to applying for an undergrad program, with a key difference being the importance of having research experience, which helped me a lot. Post-grad is very different from undergrad, you aren’t just going to classes you are doing research and working on projects. And you have to complete another standardized test – the GRE.” Do you get a masters degree along the way or are the requirements just incorporated into the PhD?

Graykowski: “It’s incorporated; I was really confused about that point at first too. You take classes for two years like you are heading for a masters, and have to pass the same tests, but instead of getting awarded a masters degree you keep going until you get your PhD.” Undergrad degrees are well defined and mapped out. Is the open-ended nature of researching and authoring a PhD dissertation scary?

Graykowski: “It’s still extremely scary to me but I have a rough idea of what I’m going to do. Of course you have an advisor to guide you, but you keep working on your PhD until you finish which can take three to five years, sometimes more.” What other advice to you have for students still in high school who are just about to head off to college?

Graykowski: “My advice to students is that you don’t have to know what you are going to do at all. If you think a major sounds cool, then go for it. And if you don’t know then start undeclared. I know some people who chose their major because of what their parents expected and it was a mistake; you need to love the major you are pursuing.”