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Posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2022

UC Merced, Department of Physics 

Alauna is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate and mother to a three-year-old, with a second child on the way. She and her husband are both grad students at the UC Merced. Alauna’s research interests include soft matter and self-assembly of biological systems. Her current projects include a study of the self-assembly of nanoparticles in a liquid crystal solvent undergoing a phase transition, self-assembly of the COVID viral particle, and the effect of e-cigarette chemical additives on lung surfactants. She also recently published a collaborative paper on the structure of electrosensory gels in cartilaginous fishes. She is the recipient of many honors and awards, including the 2020-2021 Outstanding Physics TA Award. Pre-Ph.D., Alauna spent three years as a rocket propulsion and testing engineer.  

Her current outreach focuses on conducting hands-on science activities for elementary students using common household items. She is developing an accompanying YouTube channel so kids everywhere can do the activities at home with their adults. She is also a bargaining team member for the new UC Student Researcher’s Union, negotiating for more equitable working conditions.  

Alauna grew up in northern Utah as one of five siblings. Her interest in science was sparked by an inspiring 5th-grade science teacher. Music is also part of her life – the piano, mandolin, and vibraphone. When time permits, Alauna enjoys small boat sailing, visiting national and state parks with family, and board games for 3-year-olds. 

In a recent presentation to ARCS Northern California members, Alauna noted that the past few years have been full of surprises – an unexpected pregnancy, health issues, the pandemic – that threw her off track and tested her resolve. Her ARCS award was a vote of confidence that came at a crucial time. “Having other people believe in me helps me believe in myself and keep going. Thank you!” 

Alauna Wheeler