University of Vermont

Office of Undergraduate Research

Paving the Way for Women in Science

Haley Wahl and Summer Averill
From left to right, seniors Haley Wahl and Summer Averill

As a young girl, Haley Wahl loved stargazing. She could do it for hours. When her parents got her a telescope, stargazing took on a higher level of interest, and soon studying the sky became her passion. By high school she had participated in a program that allowed her to visit the University of New Hampshire and work with an astrophysics professor on a research project. 

Similarly, Summer Averill’s interest in chemistry blossomed at her high school, Bellows Free Academy (BFA), in Saint Albans, VT when she started taking AP chemistry. Inspired by her classes with teacher Paul Gamm, she knew she had a strong background to transition into chemistry at UVM.

Thanks to their individual zeal for research, Haley and Summer are recipients of the “Women in Science” undergraduate research fellowship award made possible by alumna Eleanor Sikora ’70. The fellowship funds a woman undergraduate, rising senior, in both chemistry and physics to assist on faculty research.

Ms. Sikora created the fellowship because she knew firsthand the challenges women face in the sciences. “When I was growing up, women were not encouraged to pursue science, and often were not encouraged in the workplace either. Today, while we have made progress since that time, there are still significant imbalances. Education is the #1 priority to address today’s problems, and the impact of science and technology on the jobs of today and tomorrow cannot be understated. I wanted to do something to help young women advance in science, and to go after today’s jobs and solutions.”

Coming to UVM from Providence, RI, Haley couldn’t wait to continue her exploration of the stars, and soon she was mentored by UVM teacher-scholar astrophysics Professor Joanna Rankin. Over the course of her studies, Haley has been able to visit the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico and to work with the telescope on-site (as well as do remote observations using the telescope), to conduct research with Joanna on a project concerning the physics of pulsars, to attend various conferences, and to study abroad in the Netherlands at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON). She is the lead author of a publication from the project she did in Puerto Rico which was recently published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS).

“Receiving the Sikora award was such a tremendous honor and I’m so thankful that I was chosen for it. Having the opportunity to work on my projects this summer at UVM with Professor Rankin allowed me to devote my time purely to research. Collaborating with others on my projects and talking to many people outside my institution about them has allowed me to make connections I will need for pursing graduate school and beyond,” said Haley.

For Summer, receiving the Sikora award allowed her to get hands-on research opportunities in the organic chemistry lab of UVM Assistant Professor Adam Whalley. The focus of Adam’s research group is synthesizing new small molecules for molecular electronics. According to Adam, “Summer has been working closely with one of my fifth-year graduate students, Robert Miller, and together they have developed a new and efficient method for the synthesis and functionalization of a highly strained molecule known as tetrabenzo[8]circulene. Their research results will be published within the next few months and this advancement will now allow us to begin testing this molecule as the active component in devices such as transistors and solar cells.

When asked about advice for future female students interested in the sciences, both offered keen suggestions. Summer said, “Working in an all-male research group showed that there may be a deficiency in female scientists, which is one more reason to major in chemistry. It is a difficult subject, but career possibilities are endless and chemistry is an essential part of all the sciences.” And Haley added, “The first piece of advice I would offer is to never give up. If you love the subject, just keep pursing it and working toward your goals and following your dreams no matter what. Physics is absolutely not an easy major, and it gets incredibly tough and very exhausting, but you just have to keep in mind the big picture and keep working hard no matter what obstacles get in your way.”