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Student Spotlight: Elizabeth Dreyer

Elizabeth Dreyer

Elizabeth Dreyer, Ph.D. Candidate, Electrical Engineering, Rackham Merit Fellowship

Her sophomore year at Michigan Tech University, Liz discovered optics and fell in love with light. “To me waves make sense. In electrical engineering, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. In order for me to effectively contribute to the world, I needed to learn more about optics,” she explains.

“In my junior year, I started thinking about grad school. I came to U-M for a conference and the female grad students convinced me to go for a Ph.D. My family and my husband’s family are from Michigan, so being an hour away from them was appealing. And of course, U-M is just an all-around great school.

"I had my heart set on Michigan from the beginning."

It came down to this: “I don’t entirely know what I want to do when I grow up, but I want options. A Ph.D. from Michigan gives me those options.  I chose electrical engineering because although I love working with light, I wanted that engineering degree. Engineer implies ‘problem solver,’ which would give me even more options. I don’t know if I will be an engineer for the rest of my life, and a Ph.D. from U-M is enough to open all kinds of doors.”

Liz is a Rackham Merit Fellow and has always been intentional about her status as a first generation college student, wanting to find whatever ways to increase her chance for success as much as possible.

As an RMF, she spent her first summer in Ann Arbor at the Summer Institute, which had a profound impact on her and developed a foundation for her graduate studies. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here. It has been wonderful. Still, grad school is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I tell all incoming students, the first semester absolutely sucks. You’re not stupid, this is just really hard. You will get through it and you’ll be better on the other side.”

Some of these lessons were hard to learn. “Classes were hard to adjust to. Although they say research should come first, you still need to care about your GPA. I had to learn when something was good enough. Now I tell younger students that their personal health is more important than their grades. It’s 11:00 PM, give up and go to bed. In grad school, often the answers just aren’t known. In research, you can always keep working, but at some point you need to draw the line in the sand and stop the research and write the thesis.”

With a passion for policy that may shape her career trajectory after graduation, Liz completed a graduate certificate in Science Technology & Public Policy. She describes, “I have become a better communicator and am able to place my work and the work of others in a broader societal context. This program gave me a social and political framework for science policy.”

As an undergrad, Liz was involved in more than a handful of student organizations but made a commitment at U-M to focus on just two extracurricular groups. She had been very involved in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and continues that involvement now with Grad SWE where she had been a co-chair or co-director for the last four years. Involved with the Optics Society (OSA), she founded a joint student chapter of OSA and the International Society of Optics and Photonics (SPIE). The first four years she served as president or secretary and now provides leadership on the national organization level.

Despite her ‘two organization limit,’ her involvement level in those organizations has mushroomed. For example, 2015 was designated the International Year of Light by the United Nations to raise awareness of the achievements of light science and its applications and its importance to humankind. To mark the year, Liz helped lead light based outreach under the Michigan Light Project, a consortium of local and student organizations who planned light-based outreach at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, in Flint at Back to the Bricks, other events and schools throughout the year.

Through the Society of Women Engineers, Liz has developed a partnership with a group of women engineers in Liberia. Noting a need for professional connections and support there, she is in her second year of facilitating a two week residential leadership camp for 30 female students in Liberia. She describes, “It’s done a lot for the women. We’ve had to talk to parents because many women had never spent a night away from home. These women have made fantastic friendships among themselves and with us. Facebook and Whatsapp have been amazing to connect us. This is an absolutely phenomenal experience for all of us.”

On top of all of that, she’s actually in a Ph.D. program. Her lab is in the MURI Center for Dynamic Magneto-Optics, an interdisciplinary collaboration between different U-M departments and other universities to study a new class of optical phenomena that relate to energy conversion and magnetism.

She explains, “For the last 60 years, when scientists looked at how light interacts with matter, they made assumptions that, although light is an electromagnetic wave, only the electric field component is strong enough to interact with matter. Therefore, they ignored the magnetic field component in most calculations. We are looking now at interactions that are mediated by interactions of electric field and then also by magnetic field – and out pop these new effects that have the potential to produce a significant amount of energy.”

Liz examines magneto-electric scattering, shining high-powered lasers and controlling input light to focus on the scattered light and determine what’s happening to the material, particularly exploring what makes one material better than another. She says, “I am looking for materials that give highest response at lowest intensity to determine what could be an alternative to traditional photovoltaics. There are a lot of other questions to solve.”

Liz has time to wait. She should defend her dissertation next August or December. Until then, she’ll keep working and contributing her best to her field, to her colleagues, and to the global engineering community.

Where all of this takes her is unknown: “I like too many things. I know I’m not going to be a researcher for the rest of my life. I have too many interests; it would be a challenge for me to just stay in the lab. I’m interested in education but can be involved without being a professor. I can still do the outreach that I do. Teaching would be a good side project or retirement plan. I could work in industry for 20 years then be a professor of practice. I want to collaborate with the world, I want to be able to work with anyone in the world and be able to advance science and society.”