FLORENCE — When the winner of a national physics competition was announced recently, University of North Alabama student Mary McDaniel was so surprised she didn’t even leave her seat.
It took a nudging from a fellow student to get McDaniel to the front of the room to accept the award from the 2012 Quadrennial Physics Congress. The event was sponsored by the physics honor society, Sigma Pi Sigma.
McDaniel, a senior physics and chemistry major from Florence, won the competition through her poster illustrating the work she and fellow student Taylor Garber did to determine the relationship between the binary star system Delta Scorpius and its companion star.
The pair were assisted by UNA physics and astronomy professor Mel Blake, who is also director of the UNA planetarium.
McDaniel, a graduate of Rogers High School, discovered there is “mass transfer” between the two stars.
McDaniel and other researchers collaborated with Michael Castelaz, of Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in North Carolina, to connect remotely to one of his telescopes. The team collected data, took images and formed a graph with the information, according to a university news release.
Blake said McDaniel’s accomplishment is exceptional.
“I don’t think she realizes what she’s done; she literally beat the entire country,” Blake said.
McDaniel, who hopes to obtain a doctorate in either chemical physics or astrochemistry, said she has long been interested in science.
“When I was little, I had a ton of fun building stuff and mixing chemicals to see what would happen,” she said. “It’s not the safest hobby, but it was fun.”
McDaniel said the award was nice, but what she gained from attending the national conference in Orlando was a network of other college students pursuing similar interests.
“What I learned is there are people out there who struggle with the same things I do and others who don’t, so we can help each other,” she said.
McDaniel also got the chance to meet her science hero, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the British astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars.
“She is the reason I became interested in physics,” McDaniel said.
As part of her prize, McDaniel received an all-expenses-paid trip to a American Astronomical Society convention of her choosing. She has decided to attend a June convention in Indianapolis. It was a choice made out of academic necessity.
“I couldn’t really afford to miss the first four days of the semester,” she said. “My classes next semester are going to be even tougher than this semester.”
Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@TimesDaily.com.