Annie Marsden

Fourth-year Churchill Scholar Annie Marsden is a varsity track athlete, too
Fourth-year Churchill Scholar Annie Marsden is a varsity runner
Photo by: 
Gordon Lew, College Visual Media Editor, Class of 2015

Class of 2015 | Chemistry and Mathematics

When you love something, it sort of becomes your own in a way, and I never really remember thinking that math wasn’t for me.
Annie Marsden
Fourth-year, chemistry and mathematics major

(A meme made by members of Marsden's house during her first year. Photo courtesy Jose Martinez, Class of 2015)

Maybe the secret to success really is going to bed at 10pm. Achievement, academic and otherwise, may have its roots in early bedtimes and hitting that 8-hour recommended dose. Let me explain:

Fourth-year varsity runner Annie Marsden has received a Churchill Scholarship to study Physics, specifically Scientific Computing, at Cambridge next year. She’s a chemistry and math double major, a member of the Track & Field team, a math teacher at a local elementary school...and she doesn’t even drink coffee.

Wait, what? 

A lack of caffeine isn’t the only thing that sets Marsden apart from other hardworking, high achieving, late-night-focusing College students. “I have never pulled an all nighter. Never,” Marsden said.

So how exactly has she turned non-caffeinated, early bedtimes into multiple prestigious science grants and a future in STEM?

Marsden is no stranger to success. But her path – and her interests – aren’t exactly the norm. Like many students, Marsden entered the College on a different track than the one she’s on now. “I came into college thinking math major and pre-med,” Marsden recalled. “And I never made an active decision that I didn’t want [to be pre-med] was just that I was so consumed with interest in other areas.”

She had an epiphany at her first day of a math major class, one that took her away from math for a while.“I remember the first day they said, ‘prove  that A minus A equals zero’ and I thought, ‘I don’t understand why anyone would need to prove this.’ I decided not really to do the math major, so I took the math classes for the chemistry major,” she said of her first year.

But she did return.

“My second year was the first that I wouldn’t have a math class, and that was just unsettling,” she reminisced. “I remember this day where I was signed up for other things but I said, ‘no, you know what, I want to take math 199.’...I feel like if I hadn’t made that decision, things would be so different. From there, I finally understood why they wanted you to prove A minus A equals zero.” After coming full circle on proving the rules of subtraction, Marsden stuck with the math major. She took organic chemistry her first year when considering pre-med, and enjoyed the subject so much that she decided to major in chemistry as well.

She may not have come in intending to become a chemistry wizardess, but it’s clear that Marsden knew from the get-go that she was a STEM girl through and through. 

But how did she catch that STEM bug?  “Growing up, [my mom] would play math games with me on the computer,” Marsden said. “I got really fast at it and really good, and really saw it as a fun thing.”

“I literally always loved [math], since first grade,” she said.

Still, plenty of girls enjoy math at a young age, but not all of them end up where Marsden is today. Marsden’s confidence, instilled from a young age, played a large role. “When you love something, it sort of becomes your own in a way, and I never really remember thinking that math wasn’t for me,” she recalled. ”There were a couple times in high school where I definitely did feel like people didn’t maybe listen or respect that because I was a girl....And if it did happen, it was just like ‘whatever, they’re wrong, because I know I love this and I love what I’m doing and I know what I’m talking about.’” 

Marsden credits her mother, too, with developing the persistency that’s helped her achieve so much. “My mom really helped me cultivate that and protect it,” she said.

Even in this day and age, women in STEM are outnumbered by men. She’s frequently one of just a handful of girls in her math and science classes. Perseverance and self-confidence see her through, and Marsden doesn’t mind being alone or unique. But just because she’s a smart, capable, and driven young woman, does not mean that a scholarship as prestigious as the Churchill was just handed to her. How did this passion for math and science turn into two fellowships in two years? 

Marsden learned of the Churchill Scholarship while studying at Cambridge this summer. After finishing her research there, she realized this was something she’d like to continue in the future at Cambridge. With help from Kyle Mox, the College’s Senior Adviser for Scholarships & Fellowships, she was able to round up a list of fellowships and grants that could make her dream of returning to Cambridge a reality. 

The Churchill Scholarship was founded in 1963 by Winston Churchill, who wanted to make studying at Cambridge a more accessible option for Americans. For the 2015-16 year, there are 14 Churchill Scholars. Marsden is The College’s 13th, and its first since 2009-10.

For her Civilization Studies class, History and Philosophy of Science, Professor Adrian Johns gave the students an alternative option to a final paper. Instead, they had the chance to build any scientific instrument from the time period covered in the quarter.

(The parallactic instrument. Photo courtesy Annie Marsden, Class of 2015)

Marsden and third-year classmate Brianna Hickey chose to build the parallactic instrument, which was created by Copernicus and then further developed by Tycho Brahe. It’s an astronomical instrument that helps scientists determine how far away items in space really are. “It measures the zenith distance of the stars,” Marsden said of the project.

Though the instrument functions and Marsden and Hickey achieved their goals, Marsden didn’t quite manage to escape unscathed. While cutting a small piece of wood in the woodshop with a chisel, Marsden punctured the tip of her finger and ended up having to go the Emergency Room. She didn’t cut the finger off, as she had initially feared, but she still hasn’t regained feeling in the tip of the finger. 

Marsden is sure to bring up one fact for certain: the project ended up as intended. “Our instrument is beautiful,” she said. 

Fingertip intact, Marsden’s ascension to the top of the College’s math and science community continued. In late January, Marsden was officially named a Churchill Scholar for 2015-16. “I think that this year is really going to be about letting scientific thinkers come together,” Marsden predicted. “We get to live at this college, and we get to think about really interesting things and do interesting research. And they’re supporting us and they believe in us, and that was really exciting.” 

Although she was pleased to receive the scholarship, she didn’t brag about the news. “She is insanely humble,” second-year Madison Hetzner, Marsden’s roommate and close friend, said, “She didn’t even really tell anyone that she got this big award. I knew because she had talked to me about it, but it just kind of came out slowly. She wasn’t like ‘guys, guess what I won?’”

Oh, and did we mention she’s a varsity athlete as well? 

Marsden is a member of the Cross Country and Track teams here at the College. She joined the teams in her second year, but tore her MCL and didn’t practice or compete with the team. In her third year, Marsden truly joined the varsity teams. Finally uninjured, she was able to practice and compete with the squads. 

Managing a major, a few RSOs, and whatever else students here have on their plates can be daunting enough. Imagine juggling a math major, a chemistry major, a varsity team each season of the school year, tutoring local students, pursuing research with a professor…and being good enough at all of it to garner accolades.

“Right now, I actually ask myself [how I have the time], because I’m taking three math classes and experimental physical chemistry, and I’m working, teaching these elementary students, and I’m doing research with Professor Berry and I’m on the Track team,” she said.

“And I am kind of exhausted.”

So how, you may ask, does she do it?

“I think the biggest thing of being able to do all that is just managing your time — recognizing when you’re not actually working,” she said. “A lot of the time people work, in the sense that they have their laptops out. But they’re on Facebook, or they’re talking, or they’re doing something else….I try to minimize that.”

Marsden has other tactics, too.

“I’m definitely not afraid to ask for help…I don’t waste time, if I don’t understand something that’s going on, I definitely am more of ‘who do I need to talk to?’ or ‘what do I need to read?’ So I don’t spend a lot of time not sure of what I’m doing…I think that helps,” she said.

With such a packed schedule, it helps that Marsden has lived on campus all four years, too. “With college housing, so many things are taken care of for you,” she said. “Things that could really slow you down and take a ton of time to fix, are just taken care of. And then also with meals, I don’t have to go to the grocery store, I don’t have to think about what I’m going to make, I don’t have to pack a lunch...I think in that way, it really saves a lot of time in the end.”

Marsden’s roommate, who sees her working every day, has some insight into just how she does it. “Annie is really calm about her work...I don’t ever really see her stress out...She’s never outwardly like ‘oh my god, I have so much work. Life is so hard.’ She just gets down to work and does it,” Hetzner observed.

Teammate fourth-year Hope Bretscher echoed this sentiment. “She’s...noticeably a hard worker. During [a recent] track meet...she was one of the few people who was doing homework on the bus ride there and back,” Bretscher noted.

Bretscher is a role model in her own right, too. She was a Marshall Scholar this year. 

The only remaining question seems to be: what’s next for Marsden? 

Marsden views the upcoming year at Cambridge almost like a deferral of bigger decisions – as if the Churchill wasn’t a big enough decision already.“It’s going to be a great year of getting to do interesting stuff and putting my plan together. From this year, I’ll decide the grad school I want to go to and the area I want to focus on,” she said.

And it all started with math games and early bedtimes.

Tagged: College, Churchill Scholarship, mathematics, Math, Chemistry, Physics