Manhattan College Physics Major Wants to Inspire and Encourage Young Women to Pursue STEM Careers

Rebecca Coglianese ’23, is passionate about her future in astrophysics while battling a cancer diagnosis.

Rebecca CoglianeseRebecca Coglianese ’23, a Manhattan College physics major, never took a single physics course in high school and initially aspired to be a chemist. That life goal changed dramatically at a freshman presentation given by professor Farrooh Fattoyev, Ph.D., convincing her that she belonged in the Physics and Astronomy department. Fattoyev later became her research advisor. 

“I loved his presentation and was fully engaged in his work on neutron star research,” she recalled. “I was really ambivalent about chemistry, and so, I made an impulse decision. I love stars; I’m going to go into physics. I haven’t looked back since.”

Growing up in a military family, Coglianese moved frequently, but developed a strong attachment to the New York metropolitan area, where both of her parents are originally from. Her mother, Anne Brenner Coglianese ’87, was a finance major at Manhattan, and the reason that she initially decided to enroll at the College. A college-level astronomy class that Coglianese took at Pierce College in Fort Steilacoom, WA, was her first exposure to astronomy and astrophysics. She called her professor Hillary Stephens, one of her “biggest inspirations.”

Coglianese is passionate about the research she’s done in astrophysics and just as passionate about her intention to be a role model for women who want to become physicists and enter the STEM professions. On January 28, she participated in a Women in STEM panel at Manhattan College, alongside notable alumnae, faculty and fellow students. 

She admitted that her interest in braneworld research, a subset of string theory, is a niche field even among physicists. Coglianese studies the structural effects of properties on neutron stars and how gravity interacts with the universe. One of her research projects has been an attempt to determine whether a mystery object twice as massive as the sun can be classified as either the biggest neutron star or the smallest black hole ever discovered.  

In 2020, she was chosen as a Kakos School of Science summer research scholar, which included $9,000 in funding over the course of three summers. Coglianese is currently the president of the Society of Physics Students and is in the process of applying for Ph.D. programs in physics and astrophysics. She has always been acutely aware of the challenges facing women in STEM. 

“It’s definitely daunting to know that whenever I’m in a room full of physicists, I’ll likely be one of the only girls there,” she said. “But I’m living in a lucky time where people in the sciences are very aware of the changes that need to come. We’re at a transitional point where people are making the effort to support women, especially compared to 10 years ago.” 

One of three female physics majors in a small department, Coglianese has become close with all of her professors and other students. The department has allowed her to have an individualized research experience that she doesn’t think she would have found anywhere else. 

Last year, Coglianese was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, and in the next few months will be undergoing surgery and radiation treatment. The illness has made completing her education more challenging. She has high praise for the patience and flexibility of her professors who have sometimes worked around her schedule to allow her to complete assignments and plan for exams. 

“My professors have been supportive and accommodating all the way back from when I was first diagnosed with the tumor, not knowing if it was cancer or not,” she said. “I’ve had a very unique experience being a physics major at Manhattan College. Being in a small department, I've learned so much more than I would have in a traditional classroom setting with 30 other students where the professor barely knows you. I’m thankful for that.” 

Coglianese believes that she has a responsibility to be part of public outreach efforts and programs that inspire other women to pursue physics and STEM careers. 

“Everyone’s first response when I tell them that I’m a physics major is, ‘I hated physics in high school,’” she said. “That’s because they didn’t have the resources to understand how beautiful physics is. Hopefully, I will inspire young minds, especially young girls who may be underrepresented in their class. They’ll see that if I'm graduating from college with a physics major without any high school physics, they can also achieve it.”

By David Koeppel