Physics grad student awarded Rhodes scholarship

University of Alberta Physics grad student and Rhodes scholar Megan Engel in the CCIS building. Photo by Adam Gaumont. Megan Engel, BSc ’12 (Honours) and now a master's student in biophysics, won a Rhodes Scholarship to pursue energy research that draws from design principles in nature. Photo by Adam Gaumont.

(Edmonton) Megan Engel, an honours astrophysics grad from the U of A and now a master’s student in biophysics, has just been awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, the fulfilment of a goal she set for herself when she was 15.

J.R.R. Tolkien is my hero. I’ve been profoundly influenced by his writing, and when I found out he studied and taught at Oxford, I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” said Engel. “Tolkien saw creativity and art as acts of discovery and that our most important human duty is to use our gifts to their utmost potential, ideas that have stayed with me."

This must have resonated with Engel, because at 15 she was already living by that principle, which her father first introduced. “I was lucky when I grew up. My dad, Kevin Engel, a high-school physics teacher, was always so excited about physics and what it means to the world. He explained that when Newton theorized about gravity, he created a revolution, and when Einstein theorized about general relativity, he revolutionized a revolution.”

The challenge of understanding deep design principles continues to hold her captive. “The creative process of research galvanized my desire for an academic career. Pulling apart a single molecule held in the vise of a beam of light reinforced my awe of the universe and my faith in God,” Engel said. And when she begins her PhD in the fall of 2013, she’s going to continue pushing her talents to their limits by exploring the design principles in nature to guide the way for advances in energy research.

She credits her success to the holistic education she has received, the incredible facilities at the U of A and the National Institute of Technology, and her professors and advisors who have guided and inspired her to achieve her long-cherished dream. She says her next big goal is to one day earn a faculty position at the U of A so that she can continue her research, volunteering and outreach, through programs such as WISEST. She also plans to return to The Last Alliance: the University of Alberta Tolkien Society, unique in Canada, which she co-founded on the U of A campus in 2009.

The Rhodes Scholarships were established in 1903 in the will of Cecil Rhodes and are considered among the most prestigious graduate scholarships in the world. According to the Rhodes Trust, “Rhodes Scholarship selection committees will be seeking young women and men of outstanding intellect, character, leadership and commitment to service. The Rhodes Scholarships support students who demonstrate a strong propensity to emerge as 'leaders for the world’s future.'“

Q & A with Megan Engel

Megan Engel earned a BSc with honours in the field of astrophysics at the University of Alberta. It was with the mentorship of associate professor of Physics Craig Heinke, with whom she wrote her first paper, that Engel decided to pursue a career in research.

She is currently undertaking a Masters degree under the co-supervision of assistant professors Kevin Beach (theoretical condensed matter physics) and Michael Woodside (biophysics). The experimental aspect of her work involves measuring pseudoknots in RNA. She is adapting that knowledge to create a theoretical framework for mapping out misfolding in proteins associated with Parkinson’s disease.

In the wake of news that she has received a Rhodes scholarship, Engel took some time to discuss her work.

How are the different fields of theory, condensed matter physics and biology important to the study you’re undertaking at the University of Alberta?

The study is interdisciplinary in the sense that the mathematics and physics theory I have fallen in love with throughout my undergraduate studies are being applied to a realm they have not been traditionally used in. My current MSc work is similar philosophically to what I wish to pursue at Oxford, in that tools from physics are being used to solve problems that other disciplines, biology and chemistry have historically examined.

What specific phenomenon will you be exploring?

The project I am interested in working on at Oxford involves exploring how chromophores (the pigments that harvest light) use quantum coherence and entanglement. You would think that environmental noise such as heat, sound and vibration would disrupt the coherence, but it does not. It was making the energy transfer in the first few stages of photosynthesis more efficient. The energy transfer in these steps is about 97 per cent efficient. Compare this to the current maximum efficiency of solar cells (ones you can buy for your house) at about 25 per cent efficiency. The pigments interfere with one another quantum mechanically to achieve this incredible efficiency.

What fascinates you about photosynthesis?

I have always been fascinated by the solutions to human problems I see hidden in the natural world. We struggle to find sustainable energy, yet nature solved this crisis billions of years ago. A deep faith in God motivated the awe of nature that fuels my commitment to exploring the universe with sophisticated theoretical machinery.