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Martin Blood-Forsythe '10 is Named Churchill Scholar

The physics major is one of 14 students from top schools across the country to be selected for the Churchill Scholarship, which funds graduate study in engineering, mathematics and the sciences at Cambridge University.

Martin Blood-Forsythe credits the Vermont farm where he grew up for helping to kindle his passion for science.  There, he and his parents lived together in one big house with aunts, uncles, and cousins. The family raised cows and sheep and, while the farm was not a commercial operation, the rural locale gave Blood-Forsythe the chance to explore nature just by walking out the door.

“As a kid on a family farm there is a lot of stuff you can get into,” says Blood-Forsythe, who became what he calls a “tinkerer” at an early age. He developed small construction projects, worked with wood and became the family go-to person for computers or other electronics.

Also a significant influence was his Quaker upbringing, which encouraged questioning and reflection.   At Haverford, Blood-Forsythe discovered physics to be a natural fit for his inquisitive nature and penchant for “fiddling” with things.

At Cambridge University, the newly named Churchill Scholar plans to pursue a one-year master’s degree in physics. He’ll be working in the Department of Physics’ Cavendish Laboratory with Dr. Jacqueline Cole, who leads a research group that focuses on determining the relationships between materials properties and their molecular or atomic structure. “Among other techniques, Dr. Cole is an expert in high resolution x-ray diffraction,” says Blood-Forsythe. “The idea is to use x-rays to probe the structure of materials at an atomic level. My project will involve studying dye-sensitized solar cells that I fabricate in the lab.”

Blood-Forsythe, whose ultimate career goal is to do research in alternative and renewable energy technology, explains that these types of solar cells are made from a thin film of electrolyte material sandwiched between semiconductor plates and rely on a chemical reaction that is stimulated by light. “They are easy and cheap to make, but they are less efficient than traditional silicon solar cells and they break down fairly quickly,” he says. “So an important area of research involves how to make them longer lasting.”

Blood-Forsythe spent the summer of 2008 participating in a research program for undergraduates at Cornell University. Last year, he was named a Goldwater Scholar by the Barry M. Goldwater Foundation, which awards annual scholarships to outstanding undergraduates who plan to pursue careers in engineering, mathematics or science.  And during the summer of 2009, he did gravitational physics and cosmology research with Associate Professor of Physics Stephon Alexander, who is his senior thesis advisor at Haverford, and has taught him in two classes, “General Relativity” and “Solid State Physics.”

Alexander calls Blood-Forsythe “a genuinely curious character.”

“Martin loves learning physics,” says Alexander. “While he wants to apply his knowledge of physics for the benefit of humanity, he sees the connection between fundamental physics and applications. This past summer he worked with me in Spain on a new formulation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  Martin was able to assimilate the calculational tools at the speed of light.”

Blood-Forsythe has also taken on an ambitious subject for his senior thesis. “Martin’s thesis work uses new ideas from superconductivity to explain the phase of rapid expansion of the universe after the big bang,” says Alexander.

Academically accomplished as he is, Blood-Forsythe says the application process for the highly competitive Churchill Scholarship was rigorous.  In addition to considering an applicant’s academic record, Graduate Record Exam scores, capacity for original work, and demonstrated leadership ability, also required was a very particular personal essay.

“It was essentially an intellectual autobiography,” says Blood-Forsythe, who is the only Churchill Scholar this year from a liberal arts college. “Trying to explain why I am passionate about physics and how my career goals fit into the broader picture of who I am was a uniquely challenging experience.  It required a lot of personal reflection.”

Blood-Forsythe, who is a leader of Haverford’s Quaker student group, QuaC, sings with the a cappella group the Mainliners, and also plays the violin, is Haverford’s second Churchill Scholar.  The College’s first, Byron Drury ’08, a fellow physics major, spent the 2008-2009 academic year at Cambridge.

“Martin has distinguished himself generally as a student and more specifically as a scientist,” says Philip A.  Bean, Haverford’s dean of academic affairs. “Beyond that, Martin is a simply delightful person; he takes pride in what he does and yet is anything but boastful, and he has a healthy sense of humor.

“The Churchill Foundation chooses just over a dozen Scholars from the more than 100 leading colleges and universities, including the Ivies, which can nominate,” says Bean.  “Since this is only our third year on the Churchill nomination list, and Martin is our second Churchill Scholar, I would venture to say that Martin’s selection also reflects extremely well on the quality of a Haverford education.”

--Eils Lotozo

Originally posted at: http://www.haverford.edu/news/stories/35471/23