2023 Student Essay Contest: Undergraduate First Place

“Woman + Challenge = Drive”

by: Anna McLerran (Utah Valley University)

Interviewee: Pearl Sandick (University of Utah)

Behind every accomplished woman, there is the story of how she began.

The story leads us to her past like a trail of breadcrumbs, with waypoints of varying importance. To follow them is to learn how another great female mind came to be. For those of us hoping to achieve success in our own right, we eagerly follow her progress, cataloguing the traits we admire in her to hold up as aspirations for ourselves. What, then, are the makings of a remarkable woman?

Our story begins with an adventurous kid who devoured books and looked forward to the math games and challenges her elementary school would periodically hold. A quiet girl, introverted but unafraid to step outside her comfort zone, Pearl Sandick was completely unaware of her future as a theoretical particle physicist. She played soccer in mixed-gender teams with her friends, until age required the boys and girls to play in separate leagues. She rode horses and threw herself headlong into every challenge. Already, we see an interesting dichotomy in young Pearl; quiet and reserved, but always pushing herself to be more.

Our heroine’s story might have taken a turn in middle school, when rigid coursework and timed testing threatened to leach away a lot of the enthusiasm she held for mathematics. There was a period when she forgot the joy of it, and if not for her stubborn resilience and willingness to work hard even when she didn’t feel engaged, her journey into science might have ended there. But she carried on, remaining diligent in her studies even when it wasn’t fun. Buoyed by the more joyful and exciting experiences in her after-school math club, Pearl was able to keep the spark alive through high school. She recalls her high school calculus teacher with fondness, a woman who made an indelible impression on young Pearl and pushed her to greater heights by encouraging her natural talent for the subject. She excelled in her classes and even began traveling for math competitions, which she remembers as some of the highlights of her school days. She would get up at 5 o’clock on the morning of the competition, take an hour-long bus ride to the facility, and then get to enjoy a full day of math challenges and puzzles with her friends.

Pearl’s first college math class was multivariable calculus. Like countless other new college students, she was surprised by the sudden change in the level of support between high school and college. For the first time, she was the one in charge of deciding how much or how little she would study. As a result, she didn’t feel she got as much out of the class as she wanted by the end, though she did manage to pass it. Later in her school career, she signed up to be a grader for that same class so she could go back and rehash the material, filling in any gaps left by that initial struggle to adapt. Not many people take charge of their own education like that or are willing to push themselves beyond requirement or expectation, but those who do are destined for great things.

A BA in Mathematics and a PhD in Physics later, it’s safe to say that Pearl’s fearless approach to challenges has served her well through the years. Though no two stories are the same, we see common traits emerge in the histories of our greatest thought leaders: perseverance, curiosity, fearlessness, and above all, an unquenchable thirst. For Dr. Pearl Sandick, that thirst is a desire to understand how our universe works. It is her dream to one day help discover what dark matter is; to play a role in this discovery, she has prepared, studied, obtained the background knowledge, and learned the mathematical techniques that are required for such a task.

Dr. Sandick now works as a Professor of Physics and Astronomy and is an Associate Dean for Faculty and Research at the University of Utah. She teaches graduate and undergraduate classes, conducts research, has published many scientific papers in important journals, and gives science talks around the world. Despite all these incredible accomplishments, what Pearl is most proud of is when she is able to help someone else discover or understand something. Her passion for science is evident in the way she absolutely comes alive when explaining complex topics like dark stars or supersymmetry, and her grasp of those topics is clear in the way she can break them down to make sense for almost anyone.

What makes a woman remarkable is not necessarily what she does, but how she does it. When asked what she finds beautiful about mathematics, Dr. Sandick had this to say:

“In physics, if you know—or guess—the basic parameters, the rules of nature, and you follow them, it can lead you to understand why things are the way they are. The same thing is true in mathematics: there are the basic parameters, but anything that can happen should happen, unless there’s a reason for it not to happen. So I like that there’s that space in which to play. And through the math, things can come together in a really special way that is both simple and complex.”

The parallels to her life are hard to ignore.