Penn State and Schreyer Honors College alumna Maura McLaughlin, pictured with her husband, Duncan Lorimer, was the recipient of the Honors College's 2019 Outstanding Alumni Mentor Award.
When she was in high school, Maura McLaughlin read "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking and decided that she wanted to study astronomy.
It was the astronomy professors and advisers she encountered as a Penn State student, though, that gave her the confidence and direction that sparked what is now a flourishing career in the field. Today, the University Scholars Program alumna is the Eberly Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at West Virginia University but has taken an active role in mentoring students in the Schreyer Honors College.
McLaughin, who was honored with the college’s 2019 Outstanding Alumni Mentor Award during a ceremony on Nov. 1, took her first astronomy sequence class at Penn State with Professor Richard Wade, who saw her potential for the discipline and encouraged her. Her first research position was under the direction of Evan Pugh University Professor Alex Wolszczan, who took her to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where they used the world’s largest telescope. Another professor, Eric Feigelson, helped her with the graduate school application process.
McLaughlin stayed in touch with Penn State as she started her career, returning several times for talks or research visits, and then decided a few years ago to join the Schreyer Honors College Mentoring with Honors Program.
“I thought, ‘I’m at a stage in my career where I have time. I have tenure,’” she said. “I just really would like to be able to support Penn State in the way it’s supported me.”
McLaughlin checks in roughly once a month with her current mentee, junior astronomy and astrophysics major and Schreyer Scholar Phoebe McClincy, to discuss McClincy’s research, upcoming conferences, or whatever might be on her mind.
“it can be really helpful to have a second opinion,” McLaughlin said. “Someone to say, ‘I wouldn’t be so worried about this thing you’re worried about.’ Or, ‘Yeah, your professor is absolutely right.’ It’s nice to have that second sort of reality check from someone at a different institution or someone with a different background.”
McLaughlin also mentors local high school students through an outreach program called the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, where students get to use a radio telescope and learn how to analyze data. One of the high school students in that program started a pulsar search club after coming to Penn State. Other Penn State undergraduate students have participated in astronomy research and mentoring of high school students through this club over the past six years.
Having gone through the same program as McClincy and other Penn State astronomy students, McLaughlin offers guidance where she can and says she is happy to contribute to a program that connects Scholars with Scholar alumni.
“It made me really happy just to know that the Honors College values mentoring enough to A, establish the program in the first place but, B have this award,” she said. “I think mentoring is really important.”
About the Schreyer Honors College
The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total more than 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 28 countries. More than 14,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.