Gloria Davidova: AEP senior wins Optica Woman Scholars award, blends physics with rhythmic gymnastics

Gloria Davidova works in the Lab
  • Hometown: Indiana
  • Applied and Engineering Physics

Gloria Davidova, an AEP senior, has recently been named one of Optica's 2023 Optica Women Scholars. This prestigious and highly competitive award recognizes 20 exceptional students worldwide. The program “provides visibility, community, and resources for women in optics and photonics through financial support, professional development, and establishing a global network as they enter the field.” The scholarship is awarded based on need, academic performance and demonstrated potential.

Gloria Davidova is one of 20 women chosen as Optica Women Scholars in 2022
Gloria Davidova is one of 20 women chosen as Optica Women Scholars in 2022

Davidova, who is from Bulgaria but grew up in Indiana, was inspired to enroll in Cornell’s Applied Physics program because of its academic excellence, research opportunities, and supportive faculty. Although she initially started out in the physics department, she realized that she did not want to be limited to physics theory, but instead wanted to study and discover ways to integrate theory with technology to solve real-world problems.

After taking Professor Lena Kourkoutis’s Introduction to Nanoscience and Nanoengineering course, Davidova decided to transfer to AEP. As a sophomore, she worked in Kourkoutis’s lab and reconstructed scanning electron microscope images of dendrites that grow between the cathode and the anode of lithium-ion batteries so that their 3-D structure could be studied by collaborators in the Chemistry department. “During that project, I gained some skills and also learned how to commit time to doing research,” Davidova said. “Lena matched me to a project that was a good fit and that exposed me to the research way-of-life.”

Davidova has always been fascinated by light and its interactions with matter, and in the summer after her first year at Cornell she got the chance to learn more. “I started thinking about the interaction of light and matter, and what happens at the most fundamental level and at the smallest time and length scales,” she said. “And so I emailed Professor Francesco Monticone in Electrical and Computer Engineering. I just wanted to ask him a fundamental question: ‘How does matter respond to light; or more specifically, what underlies the interaction between light and matter?’ It turns out that the simple answer is that matter, when exposed to an electric field, has the tendency to become polarized, but I hadn't learned about that yet.”

This led Davidova to start taking courses that seemed relevant, even as she wondered whether the credits would count towards her major. First was a course on Electromagnetic Fields and Waves, then Electromagnetic Optical Metamaterials, and later Photonics and Optoelectronics, all taught by Professor Monticone. After taking these courses, she then became a TA for each during the following year. “These classes opened my eyes to the whole field of polaritonics and light engineering. And I learned that you can basically bend light to go wherever you want, even make things invisible at certain frequencies.”

Just before the end of the Spring 2021 semester, an article about Andrew Musser's (Chemistry) group’s work with polaritons in Fabry-Pérot cavities was published in the Cornell Chronicle. “I had learned about Fabry-Pérot optical cavities in photonics, and surface plasmon polaritons in metamaterials just a few weeks earlier. I found these topics really interesting in my classes, and I was amazed that everything I was so curious about seemed to be coming together,” Davidova said. “I don't know how I had the courage, but I just walked up to Professor Musser's office and started asking him all sorts of questions related to the dispersion of the exciton polaritons. He was so gracious and answered my questions for over an hour. After that discussion I walked out the door with an incredibly cool summer project.”

Davidova continues to work in Musser’s lab studying strong light-matter coupling in multilayered microcavities with disordered organic semiconductor dye molecules, and it is her work there that contributed to Davidova being awarded the Optica scholarship. “The field is called polaritonics,” Davidova explained, “and the molecules become organic exciton polaritons when coupled to the optical mode of the cavity. Polaritons are neither light nor matter exclusively, but they inherit some properties of light as well as some properties from matter. Ultimately, possible device applications are in any light-harvesting system including solar cells or organic LEDs.”

When asked what stands out about her time in AEP, Davidova’s immediate answer is her experiences with Professor Lena Kourkoutis. “She's the bright and shining sun of AEP, for me at least,” she said. “Lena was an important role model for me when I first came to Cornell. Taking her class and then getting the opportunity to do research with her was so valuable. She's given me so much advice. So much. People call her a goddess. It is not only her commitment to excellence in teaching and research, but also her approachability and humility.” Davidova also credits Professor Frank Wise in AEP with enabling her to synthesize all the information she had learned in all her other classes and in the lab into a coherent foundation from which she could move on to more advanced concepts. “One thing I find really cool about AEP is that they gave me the theoretical toolkit to understand these complex phenomena over different disciplines. Whether you are talking to someone in Physics, ECE or Chemistry, at the end of the day it boils down to the same physical concept.”

Some of Davidova’s advice for incoming students is to embrace working in teams and to become involved in research. “This is something that Lena taught me: Physics these days is done in groups, the person working alone won’t get nearly as far as research groups that work collaboratively. And I would strongly recommend doing research, even if you’re not interested in doing a Ph.D. or continuing in physics. I learned a lot more physics that way, and research gave me perspective and a critical mindset,” she explained.


Gloria Davidova performs a rhythmic gymnastics move with batons
Gloria Davidova performs a walkover (a rhythmic gynmastics move) with clubs in competition.
When not in the lab, Davidova does rhythmic gymnastics, a very popular sport in Bulgaria. This artistic sport pairs the athleticism of gymnastics with coordination with apparatus such as balls and hoops, adding a layer of complexity to an already difficult sport. The activity has been a part of her life for over a decade, but now without a club to train with in the area, Davidova acts as her own coach to train for competitions.

“I really love the sport, so I can't stop,” she said. “In a routine, you only have one minute and thirty seconds in which to show what you're made of by doing challenging and unique combinations.  Figuring out which moves fit together—like which toss works with which catch—and then coordinating these moves with the music is a puzzle. Thinking through these things is just like a physics problem set. One time I learned a cool catch by internalizing the concept of conservation of momentum. It is much easier to catch a ball if you increase the contact time of the catch. So, I actually learned how to do better gymnastics from physics.”

In the future, Davidova plans to continue to chase light and study its interaction with matter, do rhythmic gymnastics, and hopes to attend graduate school in sunnier climates.

More Spotlights