Fourth-year to pursue scientific interests with fellowship at Cambridge

Fourth-year Annie Marsden has won a Churchill Scholarship, the most prestigious foreign fellowship for students in the sciences. The scholarship offers Marsden full funding to pursue a master’s degree in scientific computing at the University of Cambridge, beginning in fall 2015.

“I am so honored to have been chosen,” said Marsden, a chemistry and mathematics major. “This opportunity provides a great foundation for moving forward my academic research.”

Marsden is no stranger to Cambridge. Last summer she spent eight weeks in England conducting physical chemistry research. She is the 15th University of Chicago student to receive a Churchill Scholarship. Earlier this school year, she was a finalist for two other highly competitive British scholarships, the Rhodes and the Marshall.

Marsden’s research is in nanotechnology—examining how and why metals behave differently in small clusters, rather than in bulk—work she describes as “really deep in there.” The advent of nanotechnology tools that allow researchers to observe materials at very small sizes has meant that laws governing their bulk behavior no longer apply.

“I’m exploring the behavior of these things so that researchers in nanotechnology and design can use that information to help them further their research,” she said. “It’s like a chain.”

Marsden works with R. Stephen Berry, the James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry, and recently collaborated with him on a scientific paper. “I expect her to complete two or three more papers before she graduates,” Berry said. “She’s just got natural talent. You don’t see her agonizing about things at all.”

Marsden uses computers to create models to understand small clusters, but she gets most excited talking about how abstract mathematical concepts can be used to understand chemistry. She already has used Algebraic Graph Theory to understand the chemical process of “protein folding,” which has tremendous importance for drug design.  

Marsden says her love of mathematics started early, nurtured especially by her mother, Karen, who had always found math difficult and wanted her daughter’s experience to be different. “When I was growing up, she would always play math games with me,” Marsden said. “She put in a lot of effort to try to make math fun, and it completely worked.”

As a teen, Marsden became captivated by chemistry through a science program offered to high school students at the University of Utah. She enrolled at UChicago with a desire to explore the interconnections between the two disciplines.

In addition to her studies, Marsden is a participant in the Polk Brothers Student-Teacher Partnership, which takes her to Fulton Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side once a week to tutor fifth- and sixth-grade students in math. She is also a member of the cross country and track and field teams and is founder of the UChicago Ceramics Club.

In 2014, she received the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, an award for college students planning to pursue careers in science, mathematics or engineering, and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Marsden says she hopes her year at Cambridge will allow her to continue to use her mathematical knowledge to tackle difficult chemistry problems. “I’d like to develop tools that will change the way future research is done,” she said.