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Student Focus: Watt Shines Light on Davidson Experience

by John Syme
Grace Watt and Tim Gfroerer
Grace Watt ’15 and Prof. Tim Gfroerer

One of the gifts Grace Watt '15 possesses is the ability to explain complex physics clearly, in everyday terms.

"LEDs work as light sources because when electrons change energy levels, the amount of energy they release corresponds to a visible wavelength," she explained.

Watt is studying LEDs, light-emitting diodes, as a summer research assistant in the laboratory of Professor of Physics Tim Gfroerer.

"If there are defects in the LEDs, which can be thought of as potholes, the electrons cannot get to their target destination. They fall into the pothole and cannot release the right amount of energy to produce light," she noted. "Dr. Gfroerer and I are testing the properties of LEDs at different temperatures to determine the characteristics of the potholes. We follow behind a decade of research trying to understand the mechanism behind this droop in efficiency."

That is not a typo. "Droop" is indeed the scientific term.

"With LEDs, you can really crank up the current, but the conversion efficiency decreases as you turn it up," said Gfroerer.

That decrease is known as droop, and researchers around the world are working on the issue. Gfroerer's specialty is research on solar and photovoltaic cells, which convert light to energy. This is the first time he is researching the energy flow in the other direction-energy to light-so he was especially glad when summer research funding by the Office of Academic Affairs allowed him to hire Watt.

Gifts of Davidson

Ask Watt herself what her gifts are, and she'll point them out all around: her track teammates, the first-year women she works with as a hall counselor, her fellow church members, the "least of these" served by her church on the streets of Charlotte, and, back on campus, all kinds of friends and fellow travelers from her Davidson experience.

"You grow really fast here. It's like a pressure cooker, and parts of that are not always a pleasant process, like having your ‘good student' and ‘good athlete' status of high school taken out from under you! The benefit is that you're challenged along with and by an exciting group of people," said Watt, a middle-distance runner on the Wildcats Women's Track and Field Team.

"The women on my hall have been one of the richest sources of my growth," she said of her work as a residence hall counselor.

Watt, who is from St. Louis, watches the hall dynamic closely, as a sort of participatory experience: "I've noticed that the fruits of diversity are richest when nobody is thinking about it, when people are comfortable talking about all sorts of random things, people from all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of majors."

In navigating the ins and outs, the ups and downs of college life, Watt welcomes growing institutional awareness about student stress and student resilience at Davidson and across the higher education landscape.

"The real grind is when I'm deciding my grade is defining me, and I have to remind myself that I am also learning to do my best and then go to bed at a reasonable hour," she said. "My identity is not in those grades. If it takes the whole semester to learn something, then that's just the way it should be. And because we're all doing that, it does cause us to grow."

Of Faith and Physics

Watt finds her relationship to her strong faith constantly changing, too.

"I have incredible friends, loving me exactly where I am and also being excited about who I'm becoming... We can be really stubborn young people. Where we get messed up is struggling with the struggle," she mused. "My relationship with God is absolutely everything."

That being said, Watt avers that she is "not always really clear" on God in any sort of bounded sense, theologically or otherwise. But just so, her spiritual faith is central to her work with an urban "moveable feast" church in Charlotte that serves the poor and homeless. It is central in her residence hall leadership as a hall counselor, in her own academic work in the classroom and finally even back to her Dana Science Building's basement physics lab.

"Physics is one of the ways God has challenged me the most-and where I see God the most," she said. "I get joy out of it. It's a deep, rich kind of joy, not just the fun kind."

Watt is a member of the Sigma Pi Sigma National Physics Honor Society (founded at Davidson in 1921) and the 2014 recipient of the Charles Malone Richards Award, given to "a rising senior, ordinarily one preparing for the ministry, whose academic record, participation in campus activities, and contribution to community religious life are outstanding."

Watt remains steadfastly open to the possibilities that "ministry" might mean anything.

"Physics is going to give me tools to help people," she said simply. She named teaching, engineering, even building wells as possibilities to explore-right after she finishes this research on LED energy efficiency.

"I love the Physics Department. It's tight-knit and the professors are very personable," she said. "I have no shame going to professors and handing them the entire problem set and saying ‘I don't understand.' I feel comfortable asking questions, knowing my resources, and solving problems."

Let there be light.