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UMN News: Young scholar vaults into academic stardom


Ashley Nord is the University's newest Rhodes Scholar.
Photo by Patrick O’Leary
Ashley Nord is the university’s newest Rhodes Scholar.

For Ashley Lynne Nord, breaking an ankle turned out to be a good career move.

When the then-freshman pole vaulter at the university talked to a doctor about her injury, he showed her the 3-D MRI pictures of the fracture and explained what he would do about it. It was an intriguing first exposure to the world of biophysics, a field that combines medicine, biology, and physics. Nord went on to major in both physical and social sciences; her undergraduate experience culminated with the announcement on Nov. 22 that she had been named one of 32 Rhodes Scholars for 2008.

The mandate for Rhodes Scholars has always included athletic aptitude, which Nord, who hails from Rapid City, S.D., possesses in abundance. She intends to continue pole vaulting, along with mountaineering, when she arrives at Oxford University next September to pursue a doctorate in preparation for a career in biophysics.

“I grew up as a gymnast,” says Nord. That experience has helped her as a pole vaulter, but so has a knowledge of physics concepts like energy, center of gravity, and movements of mass. As a member of the university’s track and field team from 2003 to 2008, she placed in several Big Ten championships and was an academic All-Big Ten honoree every year.

The university was a draw for Nord on several accounts.

“For my undergraduate work, I was looking for really good academics, strong physics, and a good track program,” she says. “The track coaches here really value academics, and that was important to me.

“Physics is really interesting to me,” she continues. “What drives me in general is problem-solving. It’s saying, ‘Here’s a problem,’ and being able to come up with solutions. It’s the moment when you come up with something and say ‘aha.’ “

When she graduates at the end of the fall 2008 term, Nord will receive three bachelor’s degrees: in physics, astrophysics, and global studies, the latter with a minor in Spanish. It’s a perfect mix for the future well-rounded scientist.

“Scientists are involved in the social structure,” she explains. “I wanted to incorporate that into my studies.”

When she arrived at the university, she was eager to explore how a nation’s rhetoric about terrorism influences its policies and delved into the subject with Ronald Krebs, an associate professor of political science. Now, as graduation looms, Nord is hard at work on her senior honors thesis.

“It’s on U.S. policy toward Colombia and how it’s worsened the drug situation here and there,” she says.

During a summer in Merida, Venezuela, Nord not only enjoyed full immersion in Spanish but also had the chance “to explore the political situation under [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez.” On the science side, she spent two summers in a National Science Foundation-funded program for undergraduates at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and in a biophysics laboratory at UCLA.

Her undergraduate experience also included working on optics and other technical aspects of the Massive Mirror Telescope on Mt. Hopkins in Arizona, where Nord left quite an impression on University of Minnesota astronomy professor Terry Jones.

“The best thing is, she’s someone to whom you can say, ‘We need to have this done,’ and she doesn’t come back 10 minutes later and ask questions about it, she just goes and does it,” he recalls.

Is there anything she’s bad at?

“Almost anything to do with art,” she laughs. “I’m taking a course in digital photography, and it’s a big challenge.”

In spite of her abilities, Nord found the competition for a Rhodes Scholarship a high bar to clear. The final round was held at several regional locations just before the announcement of the winners. Nord went to Des Moines for her interview and wondered how she could stack up well against the “talent, intellect, and poise” she noted among the array of candidates she met there.

But she had come prepared, having enlisted the help of, among others, Serge Rudaz, a physics professor and director of the Honors Program.

“He did mock interviews to prepare me,” she says. “For example, he asked questions on the ethics of bioscience, such as the economic crisis and how it should affect science funding.”

When the announcement came, Nord was surprised, to say the least, but had no doubt about whom to thank for what she calls “a huge honor.”

“I owe this to faculty here, to my parents, to Sally Lieberman at the Honors Program, who’s involved in getting students to apply for these scholarships, and to the coaches,” she says.

Related link

Video: U of M student Ashley Lynne Nord named Rhodes Scholar

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