Posthumous degree honors student who loved physics

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Christine O’Brien: “Everybody who knew her was touched by her.”

It will be a bittersweet moment, when Christine O’Brien’s name is called at Graduate College commencement Dec. 11.

Bittersweet, because Christy (as she was known to friends and family) won’t be there. A woman who loved her friends, family, animals, and the mysteries of particle physics, she died July 3, her master’s degree nearly completed despite a four-year battle with thyroid cancer.

“We always thought that Christy was going to beat this and come back, carry on with the physics career she was planning,” says David Hofman, professor and head of physics who met her when she contacted him as an undergraduate wanting to join his research team.

Her parents, Betsy and Bill O’Brien, will be at the ceremony to accept her degree.

“We want to represent Christy because it meant so much to her,” her father says. “She just flat out loved physics.”

Christy was extraordinary in many ways. She plunged into research as an undergraduate, taking on graduate-level work with Hofman’s team. She finished her bachelor’s degree at UIC in 2009 and began her graduate studies the next year.

At 40, she was older than most of her classmates. “I watched her interact with people at CERN — they assumed she was a postdoc, or a faculty member,” Hofman says.

As a teaching assistant, “she could see where her students were struggling and help them understand,” Hofman said. “She was so passionate about what she was teaching, it was hard not to catch that excitement.”

As a researcher, she was meticulous about documenting procedures and results. She made several trips with other UIC researchers to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, and she’s listed as a co-author on the historic first paper by international collaborators on the Higgs boson.

 

From the arts to science

Originally, she planned a career in theater. She graduated from Cornell College, then worked day jobs while pursuing her dreams as a stage designer and director.

After several years in Seattle and Chicago, she moved back to the suburbs and enrolled at College of DuPage, planning to study engineering like her father, brother and grandfather.

“She took a physics course and the rest is history,” her father says. “An elegance, a beauty, a wonderment, a precision: that was the aspect of physics she liked. Taking the universe all the way down to the smallest particles. All of that was fascinating to her.”

When she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, “she didn’t think it was such a big deal” because the disease is often treatable, her mother says.

But despite surgeries, radiation therapy and participation in a clinical trial at Ohio State University, the cancer persisted. She continued her studies, first full time, then part time, until she couldn’t continue.

When it’s time to walk onstage at commencement, “I don’t know how that’s going to feel,” her father says.

“It will be a celebration of her,” Hofman says. “A real recognition of her contributions. Everybody who knew her was touched by her.”