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Spotlight Iowa City: Cosmic outlook is her passion

BY MARISA WAY | FEBRUARY 02, 2010 7:30 AM

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At 21, Maria Drout has seen more of the world — and the universe — than many ever will.

Crisscrossing the nation and the globe, Drout traveled first to New Mexico to peer through a series of telescopes that look at radio waves. In Arizona, she studied star evolution. In Massachusetts, she explored gamma-ray bursts. Zipping over oceans, she traveled to China for a Milky Way workshop and eventually Chile, setting her sight on the skies once again.

“When I was younger, I loved mysteries and puzzles,” said Drout, sitting in Van Allen Hall, the home of UI physics and astronomy. “So I always really liked science.”

Her fervent passion for science has most recently earned the Eau Claire, Wis., native a prestigious Churchill Scholarship. It allows her to attend Churchill College — part of the University of Cambridge in England — for work in engineering, mathematics, or the sciences. She’ll head abroad sometime this summer.

“I think it’s just being in a foreign country, experiencing the little things that are different,” she said. “I’m really excited to see that.”

Just 14 students across the country receive the scholarship annually, and Drout is the second student ever from the UI (the first was in 2007 for engineering) to snag the recognition. Applying required several essays, recommendations, transcripts, and, of course, dedication.

That is something UI Assistant Professor Cornelia Lang said Drout exudes.

“I think she works incredibly hard, but she also really has a genuine enthusiasm and passion for doing the course work and research,” said Lang, who has mentored Drout since her freshman year.

“She’s very good at seeing the big picture of what she’s doing, and she’s also very independent, which is one of the most important traits of a good scientist.”

Drout has always been curious and persistent, starting when she was a child, recalled Becky Drout, Maria Drout’s mother.

“Even as a little girl — when she was first going to learn to tie her shoes, she just kept at it until she learned,” said Becky Drout.

Ultimately, whatever Maria Drout puts her mind to, Lang has no doubt that she will succeed at it.

“She has shown that she can do the advanced course work, and that she’s got the tools under her belt, but in addition to that, she’s such a lively, enthusiastic person,” Lang said. “You also need to have the personality and the confidence, and she really has that. That’s the right combination you need to really be a successful scientist.”

Despite her achievements as a scientist, Drout has an alternate goal in case a career in astrophysics doesn’t work out.

Drawing on her physical abilities (she’s always liked rock climbing and scuba diving) and adrenaline-fueled pastimes (she took trapeze lessons last summer), she may just find an equally satisfying replacement for her study of the universe.

“It’s been my joke backup plan that if I’m not joining the sciences, I would be a stunt person for Hollywood,” she said, grinning.


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