Photo credit: Amanda Bensel

University of Michigan senior Sophie Barterian (B.S. Interdisciplinary Physics with Complex Systems ’19) has been named to the prestigious Luce Scholars Program. Sophie is one of only 18 scholars nationwide who received the fellowship for 2019-2020; the University of Michigan was among 70 U.S. universities and colleges invited to nominate candidates for this year’s cohort.

Founded in 1974 by Time Inc. editor-in-chief Henry Luce, to honor his parents who did missionary work in China, the Luce Scholar Program is a national, competitive fellowship program aiming to enhance the understanding of Asia among potential leaders in American society. Each year, the program accepts applications from college seniors, graduate students, and young professionals in a variety of fields, and provides stipends, language training, and individualized professional placement for 15 to 18 scholars who have had limited prior exposure to Asia.

While she’s excited to spend a year in Asia, Sophie doesn’t know which country she’ll call home yet. She's leaning toward South Korea, but is also drawn to Myanmar, Singapore, and Japan. Currently, the Asia Foundation is helping her secure placement with an organization in country, but wherever Sophie lands, she plans to explore the field of social physics—essentially using physics to better understand social and cultural processes. “I plan to use my training to study topics like language and information transmission between people and across cultures,” she explains, “ultimately working to make information and resources accessible to everyone.”

And the twenty-year-old from Plymouth, Michigan, is fully embracing her unique experience. “This is a big adventure in my life. I’ve never lived outside of a twenty-mile radius of Ann Arbor, and I’m about to pick up and move to a country where I don’t yet speak the language."

While specific career goals are undecided, Sophie does know she has a love for physics and other cultures—and is determined to work in both fields. Because her education has been science-based so far, she’s excited about the cultural experiences living in Asia will bring. “The purpose of the fellowship is to provide an immersive, cultural experience,” she explains. “I think Luce will absolutely equip me with the tools I need to intelligently approach a career that involves both science and culture.”

Sophie learned of the national fellowship, administered by the university’s International Institute, at the last minute. Looking over her transcripts during the summer of 2018, she realized she could graduate a year early. “Once I made the decision, I had to figure out what I wanted to do next year [2019].” Not quite ready to dive straight into her Ph.D., Sophie knew she wanted to travel. So, she looked into fellowships that provided an opportunity to explore her field outside of grad school—and outside of the U.S. “I reached out to Beth [Dutridge-Corp] at the II and found out about Luce, and really felt like it was exactly what I wanted to do.” Beth encouraged and supported her throughout the application process. “It’s likely I wouldn’t have applied if I hadn’t had such a good experience walking into her office,” Sophie says.

Along with Beth, Sophie also credits her academic mentors for helping her throughout the process: her professor Joshua Spitz, research group PI Sharon Glotzer, and the team of mentors who did everything from bringing her interview clothes to talking her through her application to helping prepare for interviews. It truly was a team effort.

Sophie's advice for anyone interested in applying is simple: Be authentic. “As impressive as everyone’s CVs were, what mattered most was who they were as a person. The Henry Luce Foundation really is looking for a family.”

If you would like more information on the Luce Scholars Program or to speak with a Luce advisor, please visit our website.