Claire Lamman, the college’s spring 2019 outstanding graduate, turned out to be much better at science than she’d thought possible
As she prepares to accept two degrees, one in physics and the other in astronomy with highest honors, Claire Lamman appears to be just the sort of student you’d expect to be named outstanding graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Lamman graduates on May 9 with summa cum laude distinction in astrophysical and planetary sciences. She wrote her honors thesis on red-dwarf star multiplicity. Her thesis advisor called her the “most outstanding undergraduate student I have worked with.” In fall, she will begin a graduate research fellowship in astrophysics at Harvard University.
But she spent years believing she was not smart enough to pursue the field she loved—astronomy. She attributes her success to persistence, hard work and luck.
She dates her interest in astronomy to kindergarten, when her teacher told her about astronauts, whereupon Lamman decided to write a non-fiction book about the planets. In grade school, her grandparents often took her to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where the planetarium would screen “Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity.”
Astronomy is something she’s always wanted to do, “although I haven’t always thought I could do this.”
At CU Boulder, Lamman has been behind the projector, showing “Black Holes” to audiences at Fiske Planetarium. She’s also racked up an impressive list of awards, and a version of her honors thesis is being considered for publication by a peer-reviewed journal.
“I know I come across as kind of an over-achiever right now. I realize that. But I haven’t always thought of myself in that way,” Lamman said.
“I was a total slacker in elementary school,” she said, adding that her second-grade teacher declined to recommend Lamman for an accelerated-learning program “because she said I wasn’t good at math.”
Lamman doesn’t blame the teacher; she says she simply “didn’t care” about school in those early years.
Research is a lot like the weather in Boulder. It can be confusing, difficult to see consistent trends, and just when you’ve finally got it, you have days of sun and think winter is over—bam! Bomb cyclone.”
In a speech to fellow honors students, Lamman explained further: “Growing up, I didn’t feel smart,” she said. “I stood out more as a creative person – putting most time into drawing, playing piano and writing atrocious poetry.”
But astronomy remained her real passion. “So, I decided to give it a go—and found that succeeding in science means a lot more than just being ‘smart.’”
In a meeting with James W.C. White, interim dean of the college, Lamman identified a key moment when she began to reconsider her own abilities. When her family moved to a new town and she began studying in a new school, she found herself slightly ahead of other students in an area she presumed she was not good at: math.
“And it was the first time I felt smart,” she said, pausing before inflecting the word “smart” as if she were still questioning the term. Then she began working harder.
Upon entering CU Boulder as a student, Lamman’s goal was to graduate in four years with at least a 3.0 grade-point average. “I thought that was going to be really difficult for me,” she said.
White, who is not only dean but also a noted climatologist and one of the most highly cited researchers on the CU Boulder campus, told Lamman that his experience resembled hers. He, too, didn’t take studying too seriously until high school, “when I realized I could actually get good grades,” White said.
In her prepared remarks for fellow honors graduates, Lamman expounded on this theme. Science, and particularly research, is hard.
“You can be brilliant, hard-working, innovative, and yet fail purely from bad luck,” she said. “I, like probably most of you, am here today due to some combination of persistence, creativity and luck, none of which I’ve always fully appreciated or known how to use.”
Even with hard work, persistence and luck, Lamman faced obstacles, she said. In spring 2018, it felt like her research was “going nowhere” because she was struggling to identify a weird pattern in her data. After much effort, she found the problem in her computer code: out of thousands of lines of code, she’d missed two characters.
“A 1 and a 0 stole months of my life,” she said, adding: “Research is a lot like the weather in Boulder. It can be confusing, difficult to see consistent trends, and just when you’ve finally got it, you have days of sun and think winter is over—bam! Bomb cyclone.”
Lamman, who says she wants to spend at least part of her time in her career doing outreach—helping people understand the science she loves—says persistence and creativity have been critical.
Generating new approaches to inquiry, making connections, conducting novel research, even presenting work in an accessible way all require creativity, she said, the kind of creativity she thought had been useful only for her hobbies.
“I didn’t turn out to be smarter than I thought; I just realized the potential of skills not traditionally associated with science.”