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Cornell University


CLASSE stands for Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based ScienceS and Education

Sadie Seddon-Stettler Chosen as NSF Graduate Research Fellow

Sadie Seddon Stettler

Sadie Seddon Stettler in the Newman Laboratory high-bay experimental area

Sadie Seddon Stettler in the Newman Laboratory high-bay experimental area.


Interview with SRF graduate student Sadie Seddon-Stettler and communications assistant Savan DeSouza on the NSF Graduate Research Fellow Award.

Q: Can you tell us about the moment you found out you were awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship? What was your initial reaction?

A: Evidently, NSF GRFP updates are posted to the website around midnight, or in the wee hours of the morning, on an indeterminate date around the end of May to the beginning of April. I woke up on a random Thursday to a message from a friend of mine from undergrad (who was also a recipient of the fellowship, our senior year of college) congratulating me, which I was initially bewildered by as I had not checked my email yet. Once I woke up enough to process what she meant, I was thrilled! It made for a very lovely rest of the day.

Q: What inspired you to pursue research in your field, and how does this fellowship align with your academic and career goals?

A: I, like a lot of other scientists, was exposed to physics fairly early on in my teens, and really fell in love with it instantly. It was the first thing I had ever tried that I could easily see myself doing for the rest of my life. I love the way physics sees the world, the way we tackle problems and the kind of work we get to do. This fellowship really lets me take the lead in my own science, which is exactly what I want to be doing with my career.

Q: Could you provide an overview of the research you plan to conduct with the support of the NSF fellowship?

A: I work for Professor Liepe here at Cornell, working on superconducting radio frequency (or, SRF) cavities. Most of the cavities we work with are made from bulk niobium, meaning it is about a centimeter thick and doesn’t have any other materials on it. These cavities are useful for accelerators, like CHESS, but also have applications in quantum computing! Because they’re such good resonators, you can use them for memory and readout, kind of like a weird hard drive. But, when you put niobium in the air, it oxidizes - it rusts, and that rust can interfere with the performance. My research focuses on stripping off that rust and replacing it with something that doesn’t rust, like gold. I proposed three main phases of my project in my fellowship application: first, sample studies to develop the best recipe for putting gold on niobium; then, testing a full cavity with gold on it; then, developing a special testing system to test cavities specifically for quantum applications.

Q: How do you think receiving this fellowship will impact your graduate studies and future career prospects?

A: Many of the grants my lab operates on cover only a limited scope of work, and are limited to specific timescales. This fellowship pays the bulk of my stipend and tuition for any 3 years within a 5 year period, which will cover most of the rest of my PhD program. This frees me up immensely to focus on the research that I am most passionate about, and not be beholden to limited grants. I am hopeful that, by allowing me to pursue unique research and by granting me some early-career visibility, it will allow me to make contributions to my field and professional connections that will help me continue my research after I graduate.

Q: The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program has a rich history of supporting outstanding scholars. What does it mean to you to be recognized among such a prestigious group?

A: It’s a real honor. It’s humbling, but also makes me excited to get to work on my research. To be recognized as having potential to reach accomplishments like those of past recipients is a real confidence boost. Who knows what I’ll do next?

Q: How do you plan to leverage the resources and opportunities provided by the fellowship to further your research and academic pursuits?

A: The funding provided by this fellowship allows me greater resources to purchase materials and systems to construct my own experimental setups, which allows me to pursue unique experimental questions that no one else is asking. I also hope that joining the group of recipients will allow me to meet and connect with other researchers from other institutions, whether past, present, or future recipients!

Q: What advice would you give to other graduate students who are considering applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship?

A: Go for it! The only thing it costs is time and effort, and the benefits are substantial. For more concrete advice, write your statements as early as possible and then give them to everyone you can to read them over. I asked for comments from my advisor, fellow graduate students, friends who were former recipients, friends who were not even physicists, my mother, anyone I could think of. The more eyes on it, the more you can refine and perfect your message. The common adage about this fellowship is that the NSF funds people, not just projects, so ask anyone who knows you as a person to read it, and it’ll help. Also, check if your institution offers peer-review sessions run by former recipients - I went to one during my writing process and found it immensely helpful. Lastly, take a look at the NSF’s priorities for that year outlined in the federal budget (they usually link to this in the fellowship solicitation), as they can be helpful for thinking about how to frame the broader impacts of your work.

Q: Beyond your own research, how do you hope to contribute to the broader scientific community during your tenure as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow?

A: The GRFP is focused on broader societal impacts as well as scientific ones, and I care deeply about the scientific community both here at Cornell as well as throughout the world. Most immediately, I hope to contribute to existing groups, or possibly a new group, that prioritize support for marginalized and underrepresented groups in physics. I also do work in my own time fighting for the rights of graduate workers, working to ensure that all graduate workers and researchers have an environment they can thrive in. Science does not exist in a vacuum, and the social context of our work informs it at every level.

Q: In what ways do you envision your research making an impact, either within your field or in society at large?

A: Within my field, I hope to contribute to cracking the code on what makes a better (or worse) niobium surface for SRF applications, a question that is very much open within the field, and very difficult to approach for a variety of reasons. More broadly, my real dream would be to develop something that becomes “cutting-edge” for a particular application - either quantum computing or particle acceleration. I want to help build the next great machine that helps us make the next great physics discovery.

Q: Finally, could you share any memorable experiences or challenges you've faced during your academic journey that have led you to this point?

A: I’ll never forget touring the D-Zero detector at Fermilab. (If you ever get the chance to take this tour, take it - it’s well worth the time). It was my first time in an accelerator tunnel, and then getting to climb all the way into the guts of an actual world-class particle detector was stunning. It really illustrated for me just how many parts have to work together for us to make the kind of discoveries we do, it was wonderful. Then, in the same breath, touring the scientific computing facility and finding out that a good amount of modern scientific data is still backed up on magnetic tape, a form of data storage first invented in the 1950s. This really illustrated for me just how true the old saying is - if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.