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Elon senior uses Lumen Prize to write first novel

Brianna Duff used the university's top award for undergraduate research and creative achievement to combine her love of physics and writing into a story driven by scientific principles.

Elon University senior Brianna Duff with her Lumen Prize mentor, Associate Professor Drew Perry.

By Sarah Mulnick ‘17

What happens when a black hole appears in a college town and sets into motion an impossible series of events, including the onslaught of an infectious anti-matter disease, the discovery of a girl who can run relativistically, and an email conversation between parallel worlds?

Such is the premise of “I Travel Light,” a novel by Brianna Duff and a fictional work framed by very real principles of physics. Over the past two years, the Elon senior has used the university’s top prize for undergraduate research and creative achievement to study the scientific concepts that drive the plot.

“I Travel Light” also is a direct rebuke to anyone who ever told her that she would have to choose between two academic passions.

“Growing up, I was always a writer. I was told that I could pick one or the other—you’re either a scientist or you’re a writer,” said Duff, whose receipt of Elon University’s Lumen Prize made the book possible. “But physics changed the way that I was thinking and made me a stronger writer, and writing made me a stronger physicist because of the creativity behind it.”

Duff’s work is the latest to be featured this year in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2015.

“There’s not a lot of stuff like this,” Duff said. “The worlds don’t combine very often. So I hope this goes to kids in high school who aren’t exposed to these ideas because they only think of physics in a certain way.”

Duff rejects the idea that physics and creative writing cannot work in tandem. In “I Travel Light,” she applies physics principles that are true at very small or very large levels to an ordinary scale, making it possible for the black hole to emerge in the college town.

Duff uses clear and concise language to explain to readers the science behind the fiction. The researchers with whom she consulted helped guide her with striking a balance between sharing complex scientific concepts in an accurate way without boring the reader, which can happen in technical literature.

“I have to be careful not to explain too much physics and scare away readers who don’t want the technical details,” she said. “I also don’t want to cover it up. That’s what the whole research process has been, talking to other authors who have done this.”

Those authors included Alan Lightman, who was once a physicist and now works at MIT as a novelist. His novel “Einstein’s Dreams” is an international bestseller that inspired Duff’s project.

Duff also visited CERN, a European organization that studies the fundamental structure of the universe, while she was abroad in Florence. She met there with experts and found inspiration from their knowledge.

A native of Richmond, Va., Duff came to Elon University with plans to double major in physics and English with a concentration in creative writing. She graduates this May with degrees in both disciplines.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides select students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

“The Lumen has totally shaped my time here,” Duff said. “This project would never have happened without it. It’s helped me to make my project interdisciplinary and allowed me to go to CERN in Switzerland, which was a huge dream of mine.”

Associate Professor Drew Perry, Duff’s Lumen Prize mentor and a published novelist, spoke highly of his student’s research and writing acumen.

“The novel is a huge, breathtaking accomplishment,” he said. “It’s the most ambitious, most fully realized student project I’ve seen in my career. I would not be at all surprised for a future draft of this novel to find a home with a publisher.”

Duff said that writing the novel and conducting her research has been a learning experience. “I had to learn to balance the full idea,” she said. Writing a novel was her full-time job over the summer. “Bringing things to full fruition was a challenge.”

The Elon College Fellow is also an active member of both Alpha Phi Omega and Alpha Chi Omega, and she is a resident area coordinator in the Office of Residence Life. This spring she’ll host a public reading of her novel and present at both the National Conference on Undergraduate Research and the university’s own Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.

Duff plans to continue with her studies, and is currently applying to graduate school for science writing and publishing.

Eric Townsend,
2/4/2015 8:00 AM