Doctor of physics looks back on challenges, achievements

Bernhardt hopes to work in gov’t, promote innovative materials


ABBY LINNELKOHL | The Daily Evergreen

Elizabeth Bernhardt, who just earned a doctorate in physics, shows off a polymer optical fiber, one of the many projects she has been working on.

ANGELICA RELENTE, Evergreen reporter

A cross-stitched fabric hangs on the wall near the doorway of Elizabeth Bernhardt’s office. A reference to “The Office,” it reads, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. – Wayne Gretzky.”

Bernhardt, who just earned her doctorate in physics, said she plans to apply to fellowship programs and hopes to spend a year working with the government. She wants to help inform scientific policy-makers. Bernhardt said her studies were crucial for her to achieve her goals.

“Leadership is very important to me,” she said. “To be a leader in this field, you really need a Ph.D.”

Bernhardt said her original goal was to lead a group and become a researcher in a national lab. She reconsidered her goal and wanted to pursue a different path instead.

“What I actually want to do is maybe more policy work and then go work at [an] industry,” she said. “I would really like to commercialize some of the materials that I’ve been working with.”

One of the projects Bernhardt worked on was redesigning a device used for deep-brain stimulation therapy, she said. Bernhardt was working on creating a flexible rod while using photomechanical materials, which change shape when exposed to light.

Bernhardt, who worked in the Graduate Professional Writing Center, said studying physics and studying English are vastly different challenges.

“When people think of physics and STEM, they’re like ‘Oh, that’s really hardcore, that’s not for me,’” she said. “That doesn’t mean that any other degrees are any more [or] less difficult, it’s just a different kind of difficult.”

Bernhardt said transitioning to WSU from an all-women’s college was challenging.

“I don’t know how I deal with the fact that our department is 18 percent women,” she said. “I came from an environment where there were very supportive women … Coming to graduate school, that network was basically gone. It was a real shell-shock of an experience.”

Bernhardt said she also had a hard time staying confident in herself.

“Everyone is good at what they do, so there is a lot of self-doubt,” she said. “Getting over that self-doubt [was] suuuuper difficult.”

Bernhardt said one of the things she will miss about WSU is the freedom to decorate her office with memes and toys.

“I feel like once you get a grown-up job,” Bernhardt said, “you can’t have your toys and your Michael Scott cross-stitch.”