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Award-winning physicist Dr. Laura Sinclair ’00 says being in all-women math and science classes at Mayfield was ‘a gift’

Dr. Sinclair, whose pioneering work in optical clocks and precision laser measuring tools has been nationally lauded, says her high school STEM studies were a chance to develop a solid sense of her own identity before entering her field as a “minority”—a female scientist. 

“It gave me some space to figure out who I was before I hit the trend of less than half of the students in my math and science classes being women,” Laura said.
Laura is a staff scientist in the Applied Physics Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, where she’s developed specialized lasers (aka fiber frequency combs) to measure time more precisely. Like, really precisely—her team’s research may eventually redefine the official length of a second.  

“These days, I’m working on transferring information about time using those lasers a thousand times better than you can do with GPS.”

Most of us are just going to have to take her word for it. (You’ll need to know what a “femtosecond” is to truly understand!) 

Laura was recently honored with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor given by the U.S. Government to outstanding young scientists who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology. She’s understandably proud of the accolade, but Laura says the best reward was having her five-year-old daughter, Clara, at the ceremony to see her mom celebrated for her scientific success. Laura has also won the Department of Commerce Gold Medal—the organization’s highest award.

Laura can draw a direct line from her Mayfield classroom to the Caltech lab, where she earned her B.S. with honors in physics, through to her groundbreaking work at NIST. Former engineer and longtime Mayfield science and math teacher Dr. Jack Blumenthal steered Laura towards a junior-year summer internship with Dr. William Johnson’s materials science lab at Caltech, and when Laura ran out of advanced math classes, Dr. Blumenthal mentored her on an independent study project in thermodynamics for her entire senior year.

“At Mayfield, I had the space to do things like pursue that independent study and take AP classes that pushed me to work hard academically,” Laura recalled. 

Laura earned her Ph.D. with Nobel Prize winner Professor Eric Cornell at the University of Colorado in Boulder before going on to become a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow at NIST Boulder, where she now works. 
 
After 15 years at altitude, the California native feels deeply at home in Colorado. “It’s where I learned to ski, met my husband, tried to figure out if the electron is really a point particle or if there is evidence of physics beyond the “Standard Model” (spoiler alert [if you understand this, that is]: the electron is round to the level where if it were as big as the earth we'd find a virus sticking out on top), and made even more wonderful friends.”

She continued her Holy Child “Actions Not Words” commitment to service during grad school as a member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, Boulder County's mountain search and rescue team. “[It] has let me see a lot of Boulder County by headlamp—the stars on the Continental Divide are really something at night,” she said. 

Laura also feels proud to serve her country as a civil servant, working to uphold NIST’s mission to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science. But what she enjoys most about her work is getting to do experimental physics as part of a team. “Seeing one of the postdocs or students point out a better way to do something and taking ownership of a piece of the puzzle is very exciting,” Laura said. 

This is music to the ears of Mayfield teachers, who have long encouraged this kind of active classroom participation and teacher-student collaboration. Laura particularly remembers the warmth of Mayfield community and has always appreciated the fact that the school—especially Sr. Barbara Mullen, SHCJ, she says—put value on the whole person, not just a student’s academic achievements. 

At Mayfield, Laura balanced her keen interest in STEM with humanities, arts and sports—she fondly recalls learning Latin and Greek with Dr. Sinkovich, playing the harp in Mayfield’s chamber music ensemble with good friends Mary Beth Bolin ’00 and Nicole Elliott ’00, and being part of the Cubs softball team. 

“Mostly, what I remember and carry with me from Mayfield is the kindness shown towards a kid trying her best to figure out who to be—from both my teachers and my fellow students.”

Although Laura knows that our current Mayfield students are in the best possible hands as they experience the same rigors and rewards of a Holy Child education that she did 20 years ago, there’s still some advice she wants to pass on. 

To current students, she says:
  • It is OK not to have everything figured out in high school.
  • Despite what TV tells us, prom is not the pinnacle of our existence.
  • Things that spark your interest in high school may stay with you your whole life.
  • Life keeps getting more interesting.
“ ‘Now-me’ would tell ‘me-back-then’ that it is okay to be awkward, and that becoming a physicist is every bit as much fun as you think it will be,” Laura said. 

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Dr. Laura Sinclair ’00 lives in Boulder with her husband, Galen O’Neil, daughter Clara (5) and son Jasper (2). The Mayfield connection is strong with the Sinclairs: her sister and fellow alum Dr. Betsy Sinclair ’98 was Mayfield’s 2019 commencement speaker and her mom, Joan Sinclair, was a longtime Mayfield faculty member (from 1994 to 2015).
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.