Sharing the Joy and Wonder of Science – Meet Samantha Creech, UNC Asheville’s 2020 Manly E. Wright Award Winner

Samantha CreechSamantha Creech
May 15, 2020

Leading stargazing sessions for school students and community members… Leading backpacking expeditions for her fellow students… Participating as an intern with the IceCube Project to improve the neutrino-detecting capabilities of instruments buried deep in the ice at the South Pole… Finding data patterns to help explain cosmic events that happened six billion years ago… And presenting at two of the world’s largest professional astronomy conferences… Samantha Creech has packed a lot into her time at UNC Asheville, and she has been named the winner of the 2020 Manly E. Wright Award, given to the student first in scholarship.

A physics major from Horse Shoe N.C. just a half-hour south of Asheville, with minors in astronomy and mathematics, Creech’s fascination with the cosmos began just a few years before she began college. “Sometimes I’ll get an inspiration to learn more about a specific random topic and it’s a role of the dice whether that sticks,” she said. “So I downloaded a constellation app on a whim, but because my backyard is dark enough that I could see a lot of stars, I started going out every night, learning more constellations. And then I took an astronomy class when I was a senior in high school, also on a whim, and those two things worked together to slowly just make me fall in love with it. By the time I got to college, I had an idea that that was something I’d want to really pursue.”

And when Creech pursues something, she does so with determination. “I’d been given advice before I even went to college that if I was interested in doing research, I should start early. So I made a point of going to Britt’s office hours as often as I could. She managed to get me started on a project as a sophomore and I’ve been working with her ever since. [Britt Lundgren is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at UNC Asheville.]

“It was a really cool experience because it’s not like schoolwork where there’s an answer already. There are no answers that are known – you’re the one that is discovering them. I got to work closely with Britt and get a deep understanding of a very specific part of astronomy.”

On one level, what Creech was studying were just data plots. But what that data represent are “the large scale winds that are being produced by galaxies due to supernova explosions – massive stars that blow up when they die,” explains Creech.  And her persistence and creative thinking has led to new insights, said Lundgren, her faculty mentor: “Her results shed much needed light on how galaxies grow and evolve over time.”

In analyzing the data, Creech says there wasn’t one ‘aha!’ moment. “It’s more of a slow understanding. Things make a little bit more sense every time you try it out, every time you look at it. It’s really helped teach my brain how to look for patterns, and made me better at thinking and problem-solving in general. Learning how to code was really valuable [she is largely self-taught as a coder]. In my work for Outdoor Programs, I wrote a piece of code that could analyze our financial data. The things that I’ve learned through research have definitely been transferrable to other parts of my life.”

Creech served as office supervisor for UNC Asheville’s Outdoor Programs and became a trip leader for backpacking, mountain biking, and climbing expeditions. “The two best decisions I made in college were doing research and doing OLTP, which is the training program to work for Outdoor Programs. It taught me how to be a leader, how to do public speaking, and gave me a chance to explore what being in a leadership position is like, plus it gave me a new hobby!” she said.

Creech’s other interests include music – she can often be found with her ukulele in her hands – and she has played violin since age 11, but once her astronomy and Outdoor Programs work began in earnest, she no longer had time for serious practice.

Her other accomplishments include being one of the lead co-authors of a coming peer-reviewed article on galactic evolution in the early universe, serving as president of the University’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students, and winning the Astronomy Club of Asheville-Carolyn Keefe Scholarship.

Staffing Lookout Observatory (operated in partnership by UNC Asheville and the Astronomy Club of Asheville) was one of Creech’s favorite activities. “It’s really fun to be with the other physics majors working there,” she said. “It’s a really good community of people.” And she plans to stay within the physics community, ultimately getting a Ph.D. in astronomy, after first spending a “gap year” backpacking in New Zealand – “one of the darkest countries in the world as far as night skies go,” according to Creech.

But before heading abroad, Creech will spend the summer interning as a science writer with Physics Today magazine. “I love communicating science to people and it’s something I’m always striving to get better at. And also I’m excited because it gives me an excuse to learn about as many different types of physics as I can, rather than just specializing in one really specific part of astronomy. It would be really cool to know that I’m helping spread this important knowledge and get people interested in science so they can use what they learn to make the world a better place,” she said.

Like her fellow May 2020 graduates, Creech has her fingers crossed that the University will be able to hold Commencement in-person as is planned for Aug. 1. As the Manly E. Wright Award winner, she will deliver the student Commencement Address, cross the stage last, and receive her diploma engraved on a silver platter. “It’s mind boggling – a huge honor,” she said. And it is an honor truly well earned.