The Secret Lives of our Profs

Rachel Young

(Photo by Nhi Nguyen)

Associate Professor of physics Megan Pickett was born in Madison, Wisconsin. She lived in Kansas City, Missouri, Detroit, Michigan, Denver, Colorado and San Diego, California all before getting her undergraduate degree in physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She then went on to get her Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Following graduate school, she worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center for four years, and came to Lawrence University in 2006. She teaches physics, and is also the chair of the gender studies department at Lawrence.

RY: Where are you from?

MP: The question about where I’m from is always a longer answer than people expect. My dad says that you are from where you learned to drive, so I’m from San Diego. However, I was born in Madison, so I guess I’ve returned to Wisconsin.

RY: Did you start working at NASA right out of graduate school?

MP: Yes, I worked in their Ames Research Center, which is in Mountain View, California. I lived in Berkeley, and stupidly commuted from Berkeley to Mountain View, which was 50 miles in California traffic. I wouldn’t recommend it. If you hit rush hour, that was a three-hour commute. I love being able to walk to work now.

RY: Was the commute worth it?

MP: Oh, definitely! I would say anyone who wants to be an astronomer wants to work for NASA at some point. Have you ever watched “Mythbusters”? Well, sometimes they will do some of their experiments in the big aircraft hanger at NASA, and that’s close to where NASA Ames is. It was pretty cool.

My office for four years was in the Space Sciences research laboratory, which was at the edge of the NASA Ames runway. The first year I was there, they were doing U-2 spy plane launches that have been adapted for research. Those things take off at like a 45-degree angle, and because they are so loud they call them launches.

I was wondering my first year why I had the office I had. After all, I was just a postgraduate student, and I had this beautiful office overlooking the bay. Well, when they had the first launch for the U-2’s, they didn’t warn us. Everything rattled off my desk because it was the window closest to the runway, and I got to see the plane take off.

RY: Have you always wanted to teach?

MP: Yes, I always knew I wanted to teach, so I knew I couldn’t stay at NASA. After four years I started looking for positions. That brought me to the Chicago area, where I worked for a branch campus of Purdue University, Purdue Calumet, for six years. I was the program chair there for the physics program, and tenured and everything, but then I saw the ad for the position at Lawrence.

It was too perfect to pass up. I remember coming back to Chicago after the interview and thinking “Don’t let Lawrence be the thing that breaks my heart,” because I so wanted the position. I love it here. I love my colleagues, I love my students and there is so much I love about this place. I feel like I’m getting my own liberal arts education now because of all of the diverse things I can do here, and the fact that I get to interact with colleagues who have so many different interests too.

RY: What do you like to do for fun?

MP: Well, I like to run. I was a runner when I was a post doc, and then I just stopped because I got busy, and I’m so glad I’ve picked it up again. I just ran my first marathon, the Fox Cities Marathon. I trained with [Assistant Professor of English] Garth Bond for 18 weeks to prepare. I cramped up at mile 24, but I finished! A couple of my friends, other professors here, were waiting for me at mile 25, and they ran in with me. My time was 4:00:03, which was basically my goal, so I’m pretty happy.

I’m also part of the faculty running club. We do the Door County Half Marathon every year, and we also do either the half or the full Fox Cities Marathon. We have also just started this cross-country challenge with Beloit, Ripon and Lake Forest. We did some ladder repeats today to prepare for speed! Our competition is this Saturday.

I also play soccer with the faculty team, and cycle too. I just did the Door County Century the week before the marathon. Before that I hadn’t been on a bike since I was 13! Besides all of these active things, I like online games, especially World of Warcraft. I’ve been known to have World of Warcraft up while students are taking exams, with the volume low. I also like to read, nonfiction mostly, and I do some cartooning and writing as well.