Class of 2021: Raven Witherspoon is pursuing a career in physics to help improve the world

The VCU Honors College student hopes to help reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world and “transfer those materials into peaceful uses like civil nuclear energy.”

Raven Witherspoon. [View Image] Raven Witherspoon began thinking about a career in science during her sophomore year of high school when she read “A Brief History of Time,” by Stephen Hawking, and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos." The books "felt over my head at the time," she said. "But I was interested in it." (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

In 2015, Raven Witherspoon adopted the mantra “per aspera ad astra” — from the thorns to the stars. She is as true to that mantra today as she was then.

Witherspoon, a senior in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a member of the VCU Honors College, has taken any hardship or setback, such as being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and used it as a motivational tool, ultimately inspiring her to use science to improve the lives of people around the world.

“I want to impact nuclear nonproliferation,” she said. “I would like to help reduce the number of nuclear weapons and to transfer those materials into peaceful uses like civil nuclear energy.”

Earlier this year Witherspoon became Virginia Commonwealth University’s first recipient of the highly competitive Schwarzman Scholars graduate fellowship. Witherspoon was one of 154 scholars chosen from more than 3,600 applicants. She graduates from VCU in May and in August will travel to Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, to pursue a master’s degree in global affairs. 

Tapping into science

Witherspoon grew up in the East End of Henrico County with a love of learning, something she credits to her parents.

“Everything at home was open and conversational,” she said. “When the recession hit in 2008, I was 9. My parents let me in on discussions. They were open about the financial crisis. We talked about economics and politics among other things. These conversations and time spent volunteering with my mother’s homelessness ministry opened my eyes to economic inequality.”

The recession was the first time she realized the economy affected her, she said. “This was the first time I understood the relationship between politics and economics and that those weren’t just adult things, they were things that impacted my life as a child.”

Witherspoon has always been interested in science (something her father, a longtime science-fiction fan, also enjoyed). She began thinking of science as a career during her sophomore year of high school when she read “A Brief History of Time,” by Stephen Hawking, and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” with a forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“Both of those books still felt over my head at the time. There was a lot I didn’t understand, but I was interested in it,” she said.

During her years at the Advanced College Academy at J.R. Tucker High School, she became interested in physics after hearing Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, speak at the school. 

“Physics is really fascinating. It seems very complex, but at the same time it’s very fundamental,” Witherspoon said. “It’s in every part of life, even music and television, which people associate with the arts more than science. I like learning about it all . . . how we think all things operate.”

She decided to attend VCU after meeting sociologist and author Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., at an event about racial justice in Richmond. Cottom was a sociology professor at VCU from 2015-20. Their meeting inspired Witherspoon to minor in international social justice studies with the goal of uniting that passion with her interest in physics.

A member of the Honors Student Executive Board, Witherspoon completed an internship in health physics at Dominion Energy’s Surry Nuclear Power Station in the summer of 2018 and in 2019 participated in the American Physical Society’s Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. She also became a diversity ambassador for the VCU Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and served on the university’s Task Force on Individual, Institutional and Systemic Bias.

Her participation in extracurricular programs was derailed for a while in 2019 when at 20, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

“It was really difficult when I was first diagnosed,” she said. “I had lots of symptoms.”

Since then, she’s been focusing on her health and is now in remission. “I discovered that I’m allergic to many staple foods like wheat and corn, so I changed my diet,” she said. “Now I make most of my own food. I still have joint pain and fatigue, but my symptoms are manageable.”

The illness changed the way she looks at life and her priorities, she said. Since reaching remission, she’s added a political science minor and taken on new roles to achieve her goals. She is vice president of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management at VCU, and an intern in Brookhaven National Laboratory’s nonproliferation and national security department. Beyond the realm of physics, she is also a student fellow with the Poor People’s Campaign and a legislative aide at the Virginia General Assembly.

Most importantly, “I spend more time with my family and friends.”

Being at VCU has been a wonderful journey, Witherspoon said.

“VCU is so diverse. There is never a shortage of opportunities, webinars, [and] speaking events. It has offered me so many possibilities.”

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