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Inspirational, but not necessarily a nerd

NerdScholar names Cheney native Moira Gresham one of 40 professors nationally who inspire students


rittani Montecucco

Cheney High School alumna Moira Gresham doesn't view herself as a nerd. But when told she was named a top college instructor by the organization NerdScholar, she took it with a grain of salt.

"It's not really a part of my identity," the Whitman College professor said. "I'll take it as a compliment."

Which is exactly what the award is about. Gresham was named one of NerdScholar's "40 Under 40: Professors Who Inspire."

According to a news release, the inaugural award is to recognize professors who "captivate and engage students in the classroom, desire to interact with students outside the classroom and collaborate on research projects." NerdScholar is the non-profit arm of NerdWallet, a personal finance and consumer advocacy website aimed at college students.

NerdScholar spokesperson Gianna Sen-Gupta said Gresham was one of several professors at Whitman nominated by other faculty members and students. She was then chosen based upon comments from her students.

"One in particular, Clare Valentine '15, wrote, 'As a young woman interested in pursuing a career in physics, I (among others) sometimes find that the journey can be daunting due to the lack of female role models in the field,'" Sen-Gupta wrote in an email. "'Luckily, I've felt that professor Gresham has done a wonderful job in not only mentoring all of her students, but also in paying special attention to creating a supportive environment for young women in physics.'"

It's a feeling Gresham echoed about her time in the halls of Cheney High. A 2000 graduate, Gresham said she has "very fond memories of taking calculus" from physics, algebra and calculus teacher Jeff Butler. She also mentioned chemistry teacher Mary Margaret Pratt as another inspirational teacher.

After graduating, Gresham went on to receive her bachelor degree from Reed College in Portland, Ore., a master's from Cambridge University and her doctorate from California Institute of Technology. She did one year of post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan, where she taught one class before coming to Whitman three years ago as an assistant professor of particle physics and cosmology theory.

Gresham said she loves teaching at Whitman, adding it's hard work but very rewarding. Teaching 2-3 courses a semester has given her a newfound respect for her teachers and mentors at CHS.

"I think, how did my high school teachers teach four to five classes a day, every day," she said.

Gresham also conducts research at Whitman, having written a couple papers on a condition of the early universe called "inflation" and on her favorite subject, dark matter. Besides being unseen, dark matter isn't like normal matter made up of atomic and subatomic particles, but without it, much of what goes on gravitationally in the universe cannot be explained.

Gresham's research focus into dark matter is to discover what it is. Doing that research, which is encouraged through Whitman's very generous sabbatical policy, also helps her in the classroom.

"Students get excited about listening to the research in class," she said.

Gresham listed actress/comedian Tina Fey as her "favorite nerd," mainly for her self-deprecating humor, although she said she wouldn't categorize her as a stereotypical nerd. As to other instances of "nerddom" in her life, Gresham said she really couldn't point to any examples. Although there was a period in high school when she said she wore socks, sandals and sweatpants in public, but "that was a kind of a rebellion."

While a Blackhawk, Gresham played on the volleyball team for two years and the tennis team for four, winning a Frontier League doubles title as a senior. It's something that probably reduces any lingering nerd factor.

"I kind of hung out with the jocks too," she said.

John McCallum can be reached at


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