Physics Students Tell Their Stories

Stephanie Brown
 
“We’re not only looking for the answer.
We’re trying to understand what’s behind it.”

Stephanie Brown 

For Stephanie Brown, it started in engineering. Next came pre-med. Then there was physics, and it finally started to make sense. Now, physics is her training ground for a career in business. After all, solving a problem is solving a problem, regardless of the subject matter, right?

“I blame it on the way I was raised,” Brown, a 21-year-old senior, says. “My family raised me to love solving problems. It is a very rewarding experience.”

For as long as brown can remember, she worked logic problems alongside her mother. She always enjoyed the problems because they required a little extra magic and ingenuity. “I’m still an addict,” Brown admits.

But solving problems wasn’t enough. She wanted depth in her solution-seeking.

“In engineering classes, they didn’t care if you didn’t understand the problem, they just wanted to know if you could calculate to the right decimal place,” Brown says. “In physics, not only do we learn techniques for solving specific problems, but how to approach problems we have never encountered before. And this mindset is applicable to many different contexts.”

When Brown took her first Physics course at UT, she fell in love at the first challenging concept.

“That is part of the beauty,” she says. “In physics, I love the fact that what I am learning is not only applicable to everyday life, it also explains it. I love that when solving a problem, we are not only looking for the answer. We are trying to understand what’s behind it.”

During the summer of 2009, Brown worked for a Houston-based company that specializes in renewable energy and energy-efficient products. Her problem-solving skills helped her to tackle projects that focused on legal issues, operations, business development, and finance.

Ask Brown what field she’ll go into and she says she doesn’t know—and frankly, that doesn’t bother her. Ask her what job she wants, and she quickly answers, “I want to be the resident problem-solver.”

 
Stuart Sevier
 
“If you look at Ph.D.s in neuroscience, biology, and engineering, a lot of them have Physics Ph.D.s.”

Stuart Sevier 

Stuart Sevier says physics is a tool that can be bent and twisted in interesting ways to understand subjects as varied as architecture, medicine, chemistry, and neuroscience. He says it can also mess up your motorcycle.

He remembers learning how friction affected the power transferred to the wheels. And when he applied the concept to his motorcycle, it didn’t turn out so well. “I read in different motorcycle magazines about how much power loss there is if the chain is not lubricated right,” Sevier, a 20-year-old junior, says. “So, I went to the store and read all the ingredients in all the different lubricants. I tried to make my own hybrid lubrication and mixed some together and ended up completely screwing up my motorcycle chain.”

Sevier says if you don’t believe that physics isn’t connected to other academic pursuits, take a look at your car, computer, or the roster of Ph.D.s in other math and science departments at UT. “A simple physics discovery got that bearing in the car the exact right way or increased the car’s mileage or helped with the electronics in a computer,” Sevier says. “If you look at Ph.D.s in neuroscience, biology, and engineering, a lot of them have Physics Ph.D.s. And it’s clear that a biologist with a Ph.D. in Physics is going to approach things differently than a biologist who was classically trained.”

Despite the training Physics gives Sevier in learning how to think, though, he’s leaving his motorcycle’s problems to his mechanic.

 
Leah Hesla
 
“Other disciplines don’t explain why things happen. Physics does.”

Leah Hesla 

Leah Hesla had a bad case of physics envy. She was a symphony-caliber violinist with a Musicology degree, working for a non-profit. She was unhappy, and even more so when meeting a Physics major. “I would encounter someone in Physics and say, ‘Ohh, really? I wish I was doing that,’” Hesla, 33, says. “I was jealous of those who were in Physics and doing it.”

Hesla thought auditing Physics classes would be enough. But for her, physics was the potato chips of science: She couldn’t stop at one or two. At age 29, she was back in school, for a specific reason: “Other disciplines don’t explain why things happen,” Hesla says. “Physics does explain why.”

Hesla says it even explains the ‘why’ of things we think we understand. “There’s a YouTube video of a stream of shampoo pouring into a pool of shampoo,” Hesla says. “It goes in and bounces way up, and then goes in and bounces some more. And you wouldn’t expect a bouncing behavior from shampoo. But it does, and physics can explain that.”

Now Hesla’s off to John Hopkins to get a Master’s degree in Science Journalism. Why? Yes, it’s still about the ‘why.’ “I think I will find a lot of joy in giving the explanation about something in science to everyone else, so they can understand ‘why,’” Hesla says. “I might help discover something that influences government policy.”

 
Andrew Perrone
 
“Most people think they understand a drinking straw.
But if you ask how it works, they probably can’t explain why.”

Andrew Perrone 

Being a well-paid financial analyst didn’t add up for Andrew Perrone. Unsatisfied with his job, he took up physics as a hobby after reading some popular books on the subject. “In a nerdy sort of way, it was a fun way to pass the time,” Perrone says.

Perrone says he was driven by why the world works the way it does. He was so driven that even though he got his Economics degree at Texas A&M, he switched from the Hatfields to the McCoys.

While pursuing his Physics degree, Perrone found out it wasn’t enough to understand why; he wanted to explain it to others, too. And so Perrone has entered the UTeach program to become certified to teach high school physics. Perrone says he gets excited about the prospect of explaining things that appear at first blush to be simple. “Most people think they understand a drinking straw,” Perrone says. “But if you actually ask them how it works, they probably can’t explain why it works. And that’s an opportunity to talk about pressure and gases.”

Perrone says he can already see himself explaining things to students, like why the sky is blue, through physics. “I’m excited about the thought of explaining to someone something that I find interesting, and then seeing the look on their face when it finally all makes sense.”

 
Brian Parks
 
“It’s fascinating to see something
and then see mathematically
why it happens the way it does.”

Brian Parks 

Most people working on a Trident submarine don’t feel obligated to figure out how it works. Brian Parks isn’t most people.

“When you’re working with nuclear power, you have to sample radioactivity in the water, and things happen in the water that are interesting,” says Parks, a 28-year-old who calls Austin home. “I got to see a lot of cool stuff happen, with no real understanding of why it was happening.”

But he was driven to find out. While on the Trident sub, he worked his way up from Electronics Officer to Nuclear Testing Officer to Tactical Weapons Officer. During that period, he was reading a quantum mechanics book in his spare time.

After leaving the military, Parks headed to UT to get a Physics degree, where he was exposed to both cause and effect. “I remember how a professor here polarized a coffee can and then used a wand to move it without touching it,” Parks says. “Then he went into a detailed, rigorous way of working through why that happened. It’s fascinating to see something like that and then see mathematically as to why it happens the way it does.”

Now Parks is off to UT graduate school to study nuclear engineering—this time, on land.

 
Claire Austin
 
“What seventeen-year-old wouldn’t want to see a pumpkin fly across the football field and get smashed?”

Claire Austin 

Physics major Claire Austin doesn’t wear a pocket protector and she’d rather explain velocity by launching a pumpkin with a catapult, than discuss black holes in the abstract.

Like other Physics majors, Austin pursues the ‘why,’ but in a different way. By relating physics to more high school students in a meaningful way, Austin can create her own army of ‘why’ freedom fighters. How does she know? She’s already had a dry run via UTeach.

“We had the kids push each other down a hallway on a skateboard dropping bean bags every few seconds, and as they accelerated, the bean bags got farther apart,” Austin explains. “This was an inner-city school. These kids had some challenges. But to see their attitude and see them come together and participate—that was really awesome.”

By joining the UTeach program, Austin gets the best of both worlds. She gains experience in the classroom while earning her Physics degree and uses elective hours for education courses. When she graduates, she’ll be certified to teach. Now, Austin spends her time thinking about the hands-on projects she’ll conduct with her physics classes, ranging from rat-trap cars to mental puzzles to fruit and vegetable demolition.

“What seventeen-year-old wouldn’t want to see a pumpkin fly across a football field and get smashed?” says Austin, believing with great conviction that the answer is not a single one.

 
Danny Miller
 
“I absolutely wanted to know the ‘why’ behind it. The strangeness of it,
the peculiarity of it, was captivating.”

Danny Miller 

In seventh grade, Danny Miller was introduced to the idea of black holes. That led to a list of questions fueled by physics that grows longer for Miller, even at age 26.

“I remember black holes really rocking my world,” Miller says. “I absolutely wanted to know the ‘why’ behind it. The strangeness of it, the peculiarity of it, was captivating. It was so foreign to me that things like this can and do exist in our universe.”

Now, Miller enjoys the adventure of exploring the big questions.

“The big questions are ultimately what you are trying to figure out,” Miller says. “You are attempting to get into the mind of God. You are trying to determine the rules of the universe that we all play in. I ahve considered these things a lot in my life and it is very important to me, not in terms of anything I hold sacred, but rather because it’s just so important.”

The irony is that when he had the chance to study black holes in graduate school, he opted to work on fusion at MIT. “If we don’t come up with a unified theory of things, the public won’t mind,” Miller says. “If we don’t come up with a sustainable energy source, we’re screwed.”