What are the physical processes that produce stellar flares? That is one of the research questions that interests Vera Berger ‘23 as she looks forward to a career in astrophysics. For the Pomona College senior and student body president from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the next step toward that goal will be a master’s program at the University of Cambridge, where she has been awarded a prestigious Churchill Scholarship for 2023-24. She is one of 16 students chosen for the scholarship from colleges and universities across the U.S.
The award, announced today, will cover all of Berger’s expenses for a year of master’s study at Churchill College, one of 31 colleges in the University of Cambridge. Named in honor of the great British stateman Sir Winston Churchill, it admitted its first students in 1960.
The scholarship was first awarded by the Winston Churchill Foundation in the United States in 1963. It brings top young Americans to Churchill College to study science, mathematics or engineering. The program, the Foundation notes, fulfills Churchill’s “vision of deepening the U.S.-U.K. partnership in order to advance science and technology on both sides of the Atlantic, ensuring our future prosperity and security.”
During her year at Churchill College, Berger aims to gain structured training in scientific computing before she begins doctoral studies in astronomy. She spent the summer of 2022 participating in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the University of Hawaii, where she began to study flaring stars. She is expanding that research into her theses for her two majors, mathematics and physics.
“The physics behind stellar flares is interesting and somewhat mysterious,” Berger says. “I’m hoping to focus my research at Cambridge on simulations of plasma or magnetic activity similar to what we might see in flaring stars.”
Berger describes her reaction to receiving the Churchill Scholarship as “honestly, pretty stunned. It feels sort of unreal, still. It’s exciting to be able to pursue this program that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise and get to know other scientists my age.”
Coming to Pomona, Berger had not yet settled on a major. “It was a bit of a journey,” she says. “I took a math class my first semester at Pomona with Professor Shahriari, and he basically gave us no chance but to succeed in his class,” she recalls. “He made learning math really interesting, and it was like we were discovering calculus ourselves.” She took more of his classes, eventually settling on a math major. “And as I gained more competence in math, I felt like trying physics,” Berger continues. “I took physics and astronomy classes and just kept taking classes,” and this fall she realized she could complete a double major.
Shahriar Shahriari, William Polk Russell Professor of Mathematics and Statistics, taught Berger in five classes and says of her, “Vera never shies away from a challenge. In addition to taking tough classes and being involved in undergraduate research, she has been a true leader on campus.”
Berger is the 2022-23 president of the Associated Students of Pomona College. She was chair of the Judicial Council for 2021-22, has been a student representative with the College’s Board of Trustees for three years, and has served as a teaching assistant or mentor for math and astronomy classes.
“I have a really strong support system at Pomona,” Berger says about professors such as Shahriari in mathematics and Philip Choi in physics, along with classmates and friends. “I’ve found a lot of community in pretty much everything I do, which makes the day-to-day work a lot easier.”
“Many times in her academic career at Pomona, Vera had the choice of a less challenging route, but each time she not only took the challenge, but also rose to the occasion,” Shahriari says. And, he adds, Berger “helped bring out the best in her peers as well.”
Berger notes the role of the College’s Career Development Office in helping her obtain the Churchill Scholarship. “They helped me navigate the entire application process and interviews and gave me so much mentorship,” she says.