Physics student is melting glass ceilings 

Nicole Wales 
BS ’21 (chemistry, physics)  Diversity Excellence, Mercer Family Foundation  and Presidential Undergraduate Research Scholarship Photo credit: Dustin Whitaker, University Communications 

Nicole Wales BS ’21 (chemistry, physics) 
Diversity Excellence, Mercer Family Foundation
and Presidential Undergraduate Research Scholarship
Photo credit: Dustin Whitaker, University Communications 

Nicole Wales, pursuing Phd in physics at MIT, thanks to scholarships

Nicole Wales was probably not the only UO senior graduating last June with dreams of becoming a science professor. And there were likely others who were the first in their family to attend college, thanks to scholarships. However, none of her fellow Ducks spent their spare time mapping their brain using an MRI scan and learning code so they could research the physics of melting glass. What really sets Wales apart, though, are the challenges she overcame just to get to the university, let alone thrive as a scholar and researcher. 

“I’m an underdog,” says the 29-year-old chemistry and physics major from Coos Bay. “There was never any expectation that I would pursue a college degree. But I decided to try anyway.” 

Wales worked hard at North Bend High School, earned a 3.93 GPA, graduated in 2010, and excelled at Southwestern Oregon Community College (SOCC). Then she faced the first of several difficult challenges that delayed—but never quashed—her promising academic career.  

In 2013, her father died by suicide. It’s a day too heartbreaking to describe, says Wales.  

No longer covered by her father’s health insurance, she was unable to afford her prescription medication. That led to a trip to the emergency room, and bills that took years—working at Taco Bell and Umpqua Bank, as a tugboat deckhand and process server—to pay off.  

She persisted, paying her bills, taking every science course SOCC offered, exploring becoming a pharmacist, and shadowing a local surgeon. Then she received a scholarship and enrolled at the university in 2017. 

“Once I got that scholarship for the UO, I knew I couldn’t pass it up,” she says. “That was amazing. It changed everything for me.” 

Wales excelled as a student and a lab researcher, graduated summa cum laude, and applied to 22 graduate programs. She’s pursuing a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was offered a fellowship for her first year.  

—By Ed Dorsch, BA ’94 (English, sociology), MA ’99 (journalism)

This story is an excerpt of an article published in the spring 2021 edition of Oregon Quarterly magazine. To read the full story, visit https://around.uoregon.edu/content/physics-student-melting-glass-ceilings

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