`Enjoy every day that you have, even a bad day'

Neighbors

May 25, 2007|By Janet Gilbert

Three-year-old Emily Harris was happily entertaining herself playing a "Barbie" computer game. A lefty, she deftly maneuvered the mouse on the family's computer with her right hand, exploring the site with expertise while her mother, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was being interviewed.

There's no doubt Barbie quickly met her match in Emily. After a few minutes, Emily called out to her mother for help in navigating to a new site.

"Excuse me," said Kristi Harris, 34. "This will just take a minute."

If anyone could try on the title "Supermom" and have it fit perfectly without alterations, it would be Harris. But like most mothers who are super-accomplished individuals and super-committed parents, her story is far more complicated than the label indicates.

Harris, of Ellicott City, was recently awarded a prestigious graduate fellowship from the U.S. Department of Energy, which will fund her doctoral studies in physics. She left Sunday for Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to begin her summer practicum. But it is her journey to this moment as a student, wife and mother that is inspiring.

Harris spoke of her husband Jonathan's successful bout with two unrelated, concurrent cancer diagnoses in March 2001: melanoma and Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"Jonathan's illness made me realize that you have to enjoy every day that you have, even a bad day. We both have that feeling that we want to make the most of what we have and what we do, every day. It's made us closer, a stronger couple," Harris said.

Harris emphasized that she and her husband have always worked well together and that they got through this difficult time the same way they got through her pursuit of a new educational path and career - as a team.

"He was completely supportive," Harris said, of her decision to get a second undergraduate degree. "He was funding my education."

Harris, valedictorian at Bowie High School in 1991, studied international business at James Madison University, graduating 3 1/2 years later, in December 1994.

"Business seemed like a solid, safe degree," she said. She married Jonathan Harris in April 1995.

While employed by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, she underwent some career counseling, including tests that indicated a strong aptitude in math and science.

"I was 25 years old, and I decided to go back to school to get some more skills," she said. After visiting the UMBC campus, she found that the small-school atmosphere appealed to her.

Harris matriculated at UMBC in the spring semester 1998 - signing up for courses appropriate for someone pursuing a bachelor's degree in computer engineering.

"I had all the intro freshman science and math - Calc 1, Physics 1," she said. But as an older, married student, Harris acknowledged that she felt a little "out of it," illustrating her point with the story of her first calculus exam.

"The class met at 4, I think, and our exam was scheduled at 5 for some reason. I wasn't really in the groove, I didn't have a study group or anything. So I was sitting in the library studying, and then I packed up and went to the exam room. Everyone was already in there, working on the exam. I was a half an hour late - I panicked. If I had been naked, it would have been everyone's classic nightmare," she said.

Harris sat down and got to work. When she handed in her exam, she recalls, her professor gave her a funny look. She was the first student finished.

She aced the exam.

But it was her introductory physics recitation, taught by L. Michael Hayden, now the department chairman, that commanded her attention.

"My eyes were opened to a new way of thinking," she said. "The idea that a ball drops and you can explain it with an equation - I was fascinated by that. That way of thinking was not yet well-developed in me, and yet I was determined not just to get through the course, but master it.

"To have that feeling that this is something I want to understand every bit of - I just hadn't felt that before."

Harris appeared regularly for Hayden's office hours to go over problems.

"I noticed that she could do the problems without referring to the book or her notes," Hayden said. "I suggested she convert to physics from computer engineering - that she could make a decision after taking Physics II, which she had to take anyway, and she kept an open mind."

Harris switched her major to physics after her second semester, and was invited to work in Hayden's lab over the summer with "nonlinear optical studies."

"I was just a monkey in the lab," said Harris. "I was really the lowest-level helper, but I was able to learn about what they were doing and work with graduate students."

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