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New grad takes research to a new level during her years as a Blugold

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Caitlin Hedberg took undergraduate research to new levels, completing five research projects with three faculty mentors during her four years as a Blugold. She will graduate in May with a degree in physics, minors in mathematics and interdisciplinary linguistics, and a certificate in Mandarin Chinese.

Caitlin Hedberg took undergraduate student research to a whole new level during her four years at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

In her time as a Blugold, Hedberg was part of five research projects involving three different faculty mentors. While she is a physics major, just one of the research projects came from within the physics department.

“Caitlin has embraced research in a very different way compared to most students,” says Dr. Matt Evans, a professor of physics and director of the Blugold Fellowship program, a research scholarship program that connects freshmen and sophomores to research mentors. “I admire her persistence throughout her four years in searching out such varied projects. She has grown her skill set well beyond the boundaries of a single major.”

Hedberg will graduate in May with a degree in physics, minors in mathematics and interdisciplinary linguistics, and a certificate in Mandarin Chinese.

She also is pursuing her Teaching English as a Foreign Language certification through an online program and teaching herself Korean.

Part of a Blugold family

A native of Carver, Minnesota, Hedberg comes from a family of Blugolds. Her mother, father, stepfather and several others in her extended family all earned degrees from UW-Eau Claire. Still, despite their many positive experiences on campus, she had no plans to follow in their footsteps.

A chance meeting with Evans during a high school visit to campus helped to change her mind.

“I wasn’t super excited about the idea of continuing the family legacy, especially when I started encountering professors who recognized my last name from teaching my parents,” Hedberg says. “But I came to tour the campus with a good friend, my mom and my stepdad just to see what it was like. I was interested in seeing the physics department as I had decided on my major by then.”

The group was exploring Phillips Hall when they came across Evans, who started asking them questions, Hedberg says.

“At the time, we didn’t know he was a professor, but he gave us a tour of the physics department and labs, a rundown of classes, and told us about activities on campus,” Hedberg says. “We were outside his office when he introduced himself and I was surprised a professor spent 30 minutes with random high school seniors he found wandering on the second floor of Phillips. From there, I was a lot less resistant to the idea of following the family path.”

Embracing undergraduate research

Hedberg and Evans’ paths crossed again after Hedberg was accepted into UW-Eau Claire and was selected as a Blugold Fellow.

Given her many interests, Hedberg was a great fit for UW-Eau Claire, a university that encourages students to search out an array of interesting courses and areas of study, Evans says. She also was a good fit for the Blugold Fellowship program given her interest in pursuing research, he says.

“Caitlin has so many interests and she was quite persistent in pursuing them throughout her college career,” Evans says. “When she showed up on campus as a first-year student in the Blugold Fellows program, she already had ideas of research in physics, English and psychology, before starting a project looking into the decision-making process of Chinese students with her Mandarin professor.”

The Blugold Fellowship Program was a great opportunity to jump into research from her first days on campus, says Hedberg, who was involved in research in high school and was eager to continue it in college.

The research projects helped her better understand what she was learning in her courses and to see connections among different disciplines that she might not otherwise have noticed, she says.

“In my time at Eau Claire, I’ve done five official research projects, which have helped me to cement the knowledge I’ve acquired in my classes,” Hedberg says. “They’ve also helped me make some sometimes-surprising connections. For example, my studies of Chinese and my oceanography course helped me with my chemistry research. That’s not something I expected coming into this.”

Hedberg’s research projects included:

  • “Understanding the Lake Breeze Front in Eastern Wisconsin Through Remote Sensing and Aircraft Measurements,” with Dr. Patricia Cleary, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
  • “Modeling Convective Overshoot in Accreting White Dwarfs,” with Dr. William Wolf, assistant professor of physics and astronomy.
  • “Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Sensor Integration,” with Cleary.
  • “Marketing Yourself in the Business World: An Exploratory Study on Marketable Qualities in Undergraduates,” with Dr. Kaishan Kong, associate professor of languages.
  • “How Chinese Sociocultural Perspectives on Education Inform Students’ Educational Decisions,” with Kong.

In addition to gaining knowledge, her many research projects also helped her build strong connections with other Blugolds as well as with her faculty mentors.

“It’s a bit cheesy, but one of the most important things I got out of my research experiences was the friendships I made,” Hedberg says. “My research teams would often go to Pho Fridays at Rice Palace, grab food after field research, go to Big Falls for a lounge day or have a fun movie night together. One of my closest friends I met through my chemistry research lab. Many of the people I met have graduated, but I keep in touch with all of them, and I am incredibly grateful I was able to meet them.”

The research also allowed her to travel internationally, something she knew she wanted to do during her college years. She was part of a research team, led by Kong, that traveled to China for several weeks during a Winterim session.

Being immersed in another culture while engaging in research was a powerful experience, she says.

“It was an incredible experience,” Hedberg says of the international research project. “We spent three weeks traveling to different cities in China, visiting schools and after-school programs, interviewing students, parents and teachers, and of course being tourists as well. My confidence in my Chinese skills skyrocketed after being able to conduct myself well using Chinese, and this project opened the door to many other research endeavors over the next four years.”

Hedberg also regularly shared her research through poster and oral presentations, presenting during research events on campus and in Madison, as well as at national conferences across the country. 

Finding her academic path

Hedberg came to UW-Eau Claire knowing she would study physics but she discovered a passion for astrophysics once she was on campus, she says.

”I jumped on our astrophysics class here and really liked how it was presented more as a case study in stellar astrophysics rather than giving a broad generalization of as many topics as you can fit into one semester,” says Hedberg, who hopes to eventually specialize in planetary sciences in graduate school.

Her math minor is a logical biproduct of being a physics major, Hedberg says, noting that the math classes helped her with her physics coursework and helped her hone her critical thinking skills.

Hedberg first became interested in the Mandarin Chinese language when she was in middle school.

“I thought it was just a really pretty language,” Hedberg says. “I took it in eighth and ninth grade but had to put it on pause due to a scheduling conflict. I picked it back up in college and have been going strong with it since then. Chinese is definitely my strongest foreign language, but I've been slowly learning Korean on my own as well. It's challenging but a lot of fun.”

The linguistics and languages aspects of her studies is not something she expected to pursue when she came to UW-Eau Claire, but she is glad she was able to incorporate them into her academic plan, she says. They’ve added great value to her time in college, she says.

“I had great teachers in high school who helped me to figure out what type of path I wanted to follow in college, and for the most part I’ve stuck by that,” Hedberg says. “However, I didn’t know how involved I would get in language/linguistics. I love the freedom to expand outside of the physics and math world, and having great professors in Chinese, linguistics and music really helped me to break out of my shell.”

She is especially excited about the opportunity to pair physics and linguistics, Hedberg says.

“It’s not a combination I’ve stumbled upon yet other than myself,” Hedberg says. “The intersection of my physics and linguistics has presented itself in ways I couldn’t have predicted. A lot of lab classes here focus heavily on pulling and analyzing data, which I was able to apply directly to my humanities research projects and it helped me to notice patterns in language formations.”

Her favorite example of how the different disciplines intersect came when she was in a second language acquisition theory class, Hedberg says. She had to make a physical model of language acquisition and present it to the class, so she made an interactive periodic table of language acquisition.

“I made a periodic table on a big piece of poster board, attached individual elements of language acquisition, color-coded it so each family on the periodic table corresponded to a family of acquisition components, and stuck extra Velcro on the bottom to make a ‘Build-a-Molecule’ section so people could play with my project,” Hedberg says. “Everyone seemed to really like it, and, more importantly, it made me more engaged in synthesizing the information as I could reach across fields to do so.”

Experiences beyond research

While research played a huge role in Hedberg’s UW-Eau Claire experience, she found a plethora of other interesting opportunities in and out of the classroom that also added value to her college career, including a summer program that took her to the University of Glasgow in Scotland to study math.

“I needed the linear algebra and differential equations courses for physics and math, plus studying abroad had been a big must for me coming to college, so it was perfect,” Hedberg says. “I love traveling and learning about new languages and cultures, so to take a Scottish history and culture class while abroad and to be able to travel to new countries was such a fun experience.”

She also worked as a teaching assistant in the physics department and was a leader in several student organizations.

Next steps

Completing college during the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on her, Hedberg says. So, she is considering taking a gap year before applying for graduate schools. She may use her newly acquired TEFL certificate to teach English abroad for a year, before continuing her studies.

While Hedberg’s not yet sure exactly what she wants to do in the future, she is confident that the varied experiences she has had as a Blugold has prepared her well to succeed in whatever path she follows.

“I haven’t decided what path I’m going to follow when I leave Eau Claire, but having a diverse educational background to draw on is important for me,” Hedberg says. “I have completely different fields to draw on when deciding on future plans, which opens up more opportunities for me, which is especially important given the effect the pandemic is having on the job market and grad school applications.”

Her advice to future Blugolds is to make the time to explore the things that interest them, even if they fall outside their major, Hedberg says.

“Take that class that seems interesting even if it has nothing to do with your major,” Hedberg says. “It may open up doors you had never considered or give you opportunities you would not otherwise have had. Eau Claire is a great sandbox for discovering what you want to do, but it only works if you’re willing to expand your horizons.”