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Undergraduate Megan Li Receives Prestigious USRA Award

December 15, 2021 | By Michelle Franklin

121521-news-li-sandstrom.jpgMegan with Assistant Professor of Physics Karin Sandstrom

Megan Li, majoring in physics with a specialization in astrophysics, has been selected as a 2021 Universities Space Research Association (USRA) Distinguished Undergraduate. Distinguished undergraduates are selected based on their academic record and accomplishments, an essay, and letters of recommendation. Recipients get a certificate and cash award.  

USRA’s mission is to advance space- and aeronautics-related sciences exploration through innovative research, technology, and education programs; promote space and aeronautics policy; and develop and operate premier facilities and programs by involving universities, governments, and the private sector for the benefit of humanity.

Read more about this outstanding undergraduate in our Q&A.

Q: First, tell us your major, graduation date, college and where you’re from.
Megan Li: I’m a physics major with a specialization in astrophysics, graduating this winter. I’m in Muir College and am from Los Angeles.

Q: How did you first become interested in astronomy?
ML: When I was four, my grandpa started reading me astronomy books at night. He immigrated from Taiwan and got his Ph.D. in materials science from UCLA; going to his house was like STEM bootcamp.

Q: You’re graduating soon. What are your plans?
ML: I’m applying to Ph.D. programs in Southern California. I had an internship with Breakthrough Listen at the Berkeley SETI Research Center and I’d like to continue working in the SETI field in the future.

*The SETI Institute = Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Q: What interests you about extraterrestrial life?
ML: Honestly, I like to have fun and do things that interest me. And it’s really interesting to study specific frequencies or communications beacons to see if they’re talking to us—or each other. Looking for aliens—I’ll never get bored with that!

Q: What are you reading right now?
ML: Mostly scientific papers—from researchers I work with now or those I’d like to work with in grad school.

Q: What was the last movie you saw? Did you like it?
ML: I saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It was okay. My family hyped it up too much before I watched it!

Q: How did you feel when you first heard you were being recognized as a distinguished undergraduate by USRA?
ML: I worked hard over the past year I had worked in Karin Sandstrom’s lab and done an REU* with Berkeley. I’ve also worked on several initiatives to support underprivileged students in the physical sciences and started a nonprofit called Big Sister STEM. I was really proud to have my work acknowledged.

*REU = Research Experiences for Undergraduates and is an NSF-funded program.

121521-news-li.jpgMegan with her cats Stanley and Stella

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
ML: I hang out with my cats, Stella and Stanley. I’ve also played a lot of musical instruments in my life. Right now I play the ukulele, but I’ve also played violin, French horn and guitar. I like singing too.

Q: What are you most proud of in your time at UC San Diego?
ML: I grew up a lot while I was here and learned what life was like outside of my bubble. I didn’t really understand what hardship was before, but coming here and being exposed to other lifestyles and backgrounds…some students aren’t as focused on academics because they have a lot of other things going on in their lives. I didn’t understand that before. I’ll definitely leave college a much better person than when I entered it.

Q: Who are some of the faculty who have had the most impact on your time here?
ML: In addition to Assistant Professor Sandstrom, Professor Sekhar Chivukula has been a great mentor. Also Professor Adam Burgasser and Brian Shotwell have been positive influences and gracious during difficult times.

Q: What is your favorite place on campus?
ML: M.O.M.’s Café. My favorite drink is a dirty taro latte with soy milk.

Q: Tell us about the UC San Diego Tea Club.
ML: I helped launch the Tea Club in 2020 with Gil Peled. It started out small, but now we have over 100 members. We have tea ceremony demonstrations or show videos on the different types of tea. It’s evolved past just tea, too. A lot of members really appreciate the opportunity to connect with others socially.