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Sylphrena Kleinsasser ’23 of Muncy Valley, Pa., entered Lycoming College during the fall of 2019 with a major in chemistry. As a Wertz Scholar, she was awarded a stipend of up to $5,000 to help support the costs of global study or completion of an internship or research experience – something that played a central role in Kleinsasser discovering her passion for software engineering.
Named for D. Frederick Wertz, who served as Lycoming College president from 1955-1968, the Wertz Scholars Program supports students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The program includes a stipend to be used toward an enhanced academic experience during their time at Lycoming. Students also receive the option to reside in the Wertz Scholars First-Year Residential Community, to participate in the Wertz mentor program, and periodic dinners with College administrators in support of career planning.
Having selected Lycoming, in part, because of the strong chemistry program, Kleinsasser ultimately switched her major to computational physics after realizing that her passions lie elsewhere. “Chemistry brought me to Lycoming. Physics kept me here because my interests were better aligned with physics," she said. Having been well-prepared by Lycoming’s faculty and academically-embedded career advising program Kleinsasser was selected to complete a nationally-competitive internship with the American Physical Society where she built a computer application to analyze physics job postings. She enjoyed the experience so much that she decided to add a second major to her course of studies at Lycoming within applied computer science.
With a more clearly defined career path, Kleinsasser later applied to 25 different REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates, funded by the National Science Foundation), finishing the extremely competitive process with offers from five different organizations. Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based Sciences and Education (CLASSE) was the clear winner, and she was able to user her Wertz award to augment her research in Ithaca, N.Y. “This program was an invaluable opportunity to gain practical experience and contribute to ongoing research in the field. My mentor, a staff scientist at Cornell’s High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), helped me produce scientifically rigorous results and develop my skills in machine learning” said Kleinsasser. “The experience affirmed my own research interests, and the connections I made during the REU helped me decide my career path beyond Lycoming.”
Her advice for college students weighing the benefits of various internships and research experiences? “REUs will give you a taste of graduate school and research in a specific field, and they help strengthen your graduate school applications,” said Kleinsasser. “I enjoyed my software projects, but I learned from my experience that graduate school might not be the best career path for me. Through my work in my research, I decided that software design is my real passion. I love designing software with practical applications.”
Kleinsasser credits her triumph to the support she received from her network of recent Lycoming grads and the physics faculty, as well as her experiences from a machine learning course taught by Christopher Kulp, Ph.D., professor of physics at Lycoming. She also feels strongly that Lycoming’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students provided the encouraging and inclusive community that fostered her love of physics throughout her years at the College.
At Lycoming College’s most recent Commencement ceremony, Kleinsasser celebrated her graduation with a double major in computational physics and applied computer science, and a minor in chemistry. She plans to pursue a software engineering career in the areas of software design, perhaps in physics applications.
Eligible students interested in the Wertz Scholars Program must apply and be admitted to Lycoming College by February 1. Upon admission, eligible students will receive an invitation from Lycoming’s President to interview. More information on the Wertz Scholars Program at Lycoming College is available at https://www.lycoming.edu/financial-aid/wertz-scholars-program.aspx.