Senior Spotlight: From Dance to CERN, Lauren Riddiford Is Unlocking How World Works

Lauren Riddiford
Lauren Riddiford
—Photo courtesy of Lauren Riddiford

Lauren Riddiford ’17 was masterfully applying physics long before it became her major and took her to the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, where physicists working with an enormous particle accelerator explore the secrets of the universe. As a dedicated dancer growing up in Phoenix, she was equally passionate about mathematics and the arts, and intent on pursuing both in college.

“I never felt like I fit the stereotypical mold of an engineer,” she said. “So I came to Columbia, where I could get a rigorous engineering education with some of the best professors in the country, but also take conservatory-caliber dance classes and be involved in nontechnical extracurriculars and live with people studying very different things.”

In an accelerated physics course sequence, Riddiford found that applied physics fit her love of problem-solving by unlocking the fundamental reasons why the world works the way it does. Soon she was helping Philips Electronics Professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics Katayun Barmak, who also was a dancer in her youth, study transformation properties of the iron-nickel compound FeNi3 to explore sustainable magnet applications, research that was later published in the Journal of Alloys and Compounds. Riddiford also worked closely with Professor of Applied Physics and Chemistry Latha Venkataraman. At the same time, she minored in dance and dove into the New York City dance world.

The spring of her junior year, Riddiford took a semester off to conduct full-time research at CERN. She joined physicists from the University of Toronto working on the ATLAS ITk project, which is devoted to studying components for the eventual upgrade of the ATLAS detector on the Large Hadron Collider that has been involved in searches for the Higgs Boson and particles that could make up dark matter. After her three-month program formally ended, she continued working on the project.

On campus, Riddiford has also led tours for the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee and served as the course assistant for the Applied Math and Applied Physics lab section of The Art of Engineering. She will begin working on her PhD in applied physics at Stanford this fall and, in the long run, hopes to become a researcher or professor in the field. 

“The most exciting parts of being an engineer go hand in hand with the most frustrating parts,” Riddiford said. “There’s nothing quite like working on a problem—whether it be a problem set or a research-related issue or a code bug—for tens of hours and then finally realizing the solution. It trains you to be persistent!”

—By Jesse Adams

View all of the Class of 2017 Senior Spotlights here.

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