For senior math and physics double-major Mia de los Reyes, research means asking many questions and getting few answers.
That’s always been the case for the Park Scholar. As a child, she asked her dad the same questions all kids ask their parents: Why do leaves change colors? Why is the sky blue?
Her father, NC State civil engineering professor Francis de los Reyes, never made the search easy. He’d ask Mia what she thought, then challenge her answer. Back and forth they’d go — question and answer, answer and question.
“I wouldn’t say I actually learned why the sky was blue, because he never told me,” Mia de los Reyes says. “But I learned to think.”
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De los Reyes brought these critical-thinking skills to NC State, where she has built an impressive and diverse résumé of achievements, winning Park, Goldwater and Astronaut scholarships; interning at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); and leading the Just Cuz hip-hop dance collective on campus.
Now she has added another prestigious honor to the list. De los Reyes is NC State’s first-ever recipient of the Churchill Scholarship, awarded to only 15 high-achieving U.S. students this year for graduate study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. She will use it to pursue a master’s degree in astronomy starting this fall, focusing on the evolution of galaxies.
The work de los Reyes will do at Cambridge has roots running back to the start of her time at NC State. As an incoming freshman, she participated in the physics department’s Undergraduate Research in Computational Astrophysics program before starting her first academic year.
“I haven’t stopped doing research since,” she says.
Her research projects on campus have included investigating supernova turbulence and testing polymer tubes for nuclear source reactors, and her summer research internships have given her the chance to work in the United States and Europe with advanced space telescopes and giant particle accelerators.
Increasingly, NC State is the choice for elite students like de los Reyes. During the 2014-2015 academic year, current and past Wolfpack students earned prestigious national honors, including two Goldwater scholarships, six Fulbright fellowships and nine National Science Foundation research fellowships. Over the last five years, more than 100 NC State students have earned a national scholarship or fellowship.
NC State’s Park Scholarship program has been an important part of drawing these high-caliber students to the university. The four-year scholarship is awarded to approximately 35 students each year on the basis of outstanding accomplishments and potential in scholarship, leadership, service and character. In addition to covering recipients’ tuition and fees, room and board, and other expenses, the program provides unique enrichment opportunities for leadership, mentoring and civic engagement.
“The Park Scholarship has given me a lot of freedom to pursue what I really want to do,” says de los Reyes. “And I am immensely grateful.”
Choosing NC State over the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, de los Reyes says, positioned her to pursue the opportunities and honors she has had.
“Coming here allowed me to stand out in a way that other schools might not have,” says de los Reyes of her college choice. “One opportunity has continued to lead to another since then.”
De los Reyes is showing her gratitude for these opportunities by giving back to other female students in the sciences. She’s volunteered with the Wake Young Leadership Academy, where she coached middle-school girls competing in the Science Olympiad competition. She also co-founded the Serious About Math and Science Club at Raleigh’s Enloe High School, where she started her high school career, and she serves as a mentor to other women in physics at NC State.
“I’ve been able to go to good schools and win scholarships. But the people who win awards generally keep winning awards, and I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “So I think it’s my responsibility to give back to the people who aren’t here yet.”