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09/23/2002 07:00:00

Caltech Undergrad Selected as a "Top Ten College Woman"

How could the California Institute of Technology's Martha-Helene Stapleton not be chosen as one of Glamour Magazine's "Top 10 College Women?" After all, this is an undergraduate entering her senior year who redefines the phrase "multi-faceted." Stapleton is a Caltech Presidential Scholar and the recipient of the Bibi Jentoft-Nilsen Award for Leadership at Caltech and the McKinney Award for poetry. As a sophomore she was the first Latina to serve as president of Caltech's Associated Students. In that office she successfully organized a student-faculty conference that brought 250 students and 40 faculty members together to discuss academics and campus life. She also received a Mellon Research Fellowship that took her to the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Physics in Stuttgart, Germany, where she worked with a Nobel laureate.

All that, and she can also run a mean band saw and drill press, and is a snare drummer for the Cabar Feidh Scottish Pipe Band.

What's a Latina doing in a Scottish pipe band?

"Well, I'm half Mexican and half American--my dad's background is European, which includes the Scottish heritage," she says with a laugh. "I went to a Scottish festival in high school and loved the music."

For all her impressive credentials, though, Stapleton, 21, was more impressed with the other nine winners. One had overcome a massive heart attack at the age of 16, another was in eight foster homes as a kid yet now excels in college, yet another spent the summer in Tanzania teaching young people about HIV prevention. They are, in short, "women who are doing great things and being great role models," says Stapleton.

That's the point of the annual competition, now in its 45th year: to recognize, as the magazine's editors put it, "leadership on campus, involvement in the community, excellence in their field of study, and their unique, inspiring goals." Stapleton saw an advertisement for the competition in Caltech's student newspaper The California Tech. The winners would receive a $1,000 scholarship and an all-expenses paid trip to New York, where they would be feted. Figuring an extra scholarship never hurts, she applied and, competing against 700 other women, won.

Stapleton does note that although she was very successful in high school—she is a 1999 graduate of St. Joseph High School in Lakewood, California, where she was class valedictorian, a National Merit finalist, and an Advanced Placement Scholar with Distinction—she found the transition to Caltech to be a little tough at first.

"The material is hard and the class pace is very fast," says Stapleton. "My time management skills went down coming into college because you don't have an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. day. So you have to maintain discipline."

Before deciding on Caltech, she thought about attending Harvard and majoring in international relations. She wants to combine that interest with a planned PhD in physics or bioengineering, perhaps leading to an academic career in scientific policy and legislation, one that will integrate her passion for communication and science. "Most especially," she says, "I want my children to grow up in a world where no one finds it amazing that women, or even Latinas, study physics."

Contact: Mark Wheeler (626) 395-8733

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Written by Marcus Woo