Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Senior spotlight: Kate Holwick

Kate Holwick is a senior at JMU completing a BS degree in Physics as well as minors in both Math and Astronomy. She is from Virginia Beach, VA and graduated from Frank W. Cox High School in 2016. She is currently doing research with Dr. Scully in high energy astrophysics and hopes to find a career in the field of cosmology or theoretical physics. She was interviewed by Piper Smith, another JMU senior physics major.
Smiles from Kate during the final exam in the
Thermodynamics & Statistical Mechanics class.

PS: What motivated you to become a physics major at JMU?

KH: I always knew that I would pursue a career in STEM but I first knew that I wanted to do something with physics when my sister mentioned that she thought she wanted to study astronomy. I thought that the idea sounded very interesting and soon I signed up to take a physics class in high school. I realized then that I liked physics so much more than biology and chemistry, because it could help explain a much larger and more fundamental range of the universe than biology or chemistry could do. I was specifically motivated to study physics at JMU, because of how much the department prioritized undergraduate research, which would give me an edge when applying to graduate schools.

PS: What are some of your favorite classes you’ve taken thus far at JMU?

KH: One of my favorite physics classes that I’ve taken as a undergraduate is ASTR221: General Astronomy II- Star Systems, the Interstellar Medium, and Cosmology. This class was a big contributor to me still pursuing a career that deals with space. Before taking this class I questioned studying space, because I was bored of stars and black holes, and up to that point that seemed to be the majority of what astronomers or other related people studied. This class introduced me to more fundamental things such as the early universe, the structure of the universe, and Grand Unified Theories (or GUTs), which intrigued me much more than stars and planets. 
Another one of the classes that I’ve enjoyed most at JMU is PHIL 311: Metaphysics. This course covered topics like universals and particulars, the nature of time, and properties. This course was fascinating because it discussed some scientific topics and challenges, but tackled them from not only a scientific standpoint, but also from a logical standpoint.

PS: What are you most proud of?

KH: I am very proud of still being a physics major. There have been a lot of challenging classes that I didn’t think that I could pass and a lot that weren’t my favorite, so I am impressed that I wasn’t discouraged from continuing the major.  I am also proud that I am continuing to take more math classes than needed for my degree, such as MATH 245 or MATH 341, simply because I want to be better at math and taking them will obviously help me with my career in physics.

PS: What about research most excites you?

KH: In general, one of the most exciting things about conducting research is getting to tackle a big problem over the course of a few months. The satisfaction of getting some information about the answer to your question is worth it. Another one of the most exciting, cool things pertaining to research is that depending on what is discovered, physics as we know it can completely change.

Senior spotlight: Piper Smith

 Piper Smith is a senior physics major, with minors in Math and Secondary Education. She is from Norfolk, Va, and graduated from Maury High School in 2016.  Currently, Piper is doing research with Dr. Ilarion Melnikov in the field of dynamics on asymptotically conical geometries.  Piper was interviewed here by Kate Holwick, another JMU senior physics major.

KH: What led to chose your major and what do you like about it?

PS: Since second grade, I’ve known that I wanted to be a teacher. And so, I spent the next years of my academic career searching for what exactly I wanted to teach, thinking that it was going to be math. When I found physics in my junior year of high school, I KNEW. It was a mathematically driven science with explanations for the world around me that made sense in my brain, and I was hooked. It was not always easy, in fact physics is college is the most daunting task I have ever tackled, but the awesome feeling of figuring out a particular equation or writing a lab report of an experiment that you are really proud of is an amazing feeling. 

KH: What values, experiences, and/or perspectives do you feel you'll bring to the next stage in your life?

PS: College has taught me so many important lessons. The importance of time management is a lesson that, 3.5 years of college later, I am still learning and implementing in every area of my life. I have also learned that the single narrative of the world that I possess is not a complete picture of how life is for everyone else. Most times, you have to step out of yourself and your perspective in order to effectively help others and meet them where they are at. Also, I will never forget that self-worth lies in so much more than quantifiable achievements; it can lie in how good of a friend you are to others or the multitude of intangible ways in which you make the world a better place.

KH: Where would you like to take your passion for physics? Where would you like your career to go?

PS: I want to spread my passion for physics through teaching! High school is a critical time for students looking to find what they would like to do in the future, and many turn themselves off to science and math because they truly believe that they are no good at it and will never understand it, but I know that that is wrong. Everyone has a physicist inside of them, and I would absolutely love to be a part of uncovering that. I believe that my excitement will carry over into the classroom in a productive way; students who know that their teacher loves the subject will be more inclined to also throw themselves into the lessons. Eventually, after getting many and many years of experience in a few different subject areas and several different student populations, I want to transition into educational advocacy, pushing for all students to have equal opportunity for success. 

KH: What are you most proud of?

PS: I am such a proud brother of Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed community service fraternity. Since the second half of my sophomore year, I have had the amazing opportunity of serving the Harrisonburg community through this organization. Not only that, I have been completely changed by APO, gained some amazing friends and new perspectives on life. Throughout my time in APO, I have served in a couple different executive positions, such as Vice President of Membership, and gained leadership skills that I didn’t know I could. Going out into the real world, I am so motivated to continue to find many ways to serve and get to know those around me.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Senior Spotlight: Matthew Almond

Matthew Almond is a senior physics major with minors in secondary education and mathematics. He came to JMU after attending Tuscarora High School in his hometown of Leesburg, Virginia. Here, Matthew is interviewed by Sean Christian, a fellow senior physics major with desires to become a planetary geophysicist and dog owner.
SC: What led you to choose physics? What do you like about it?  
MA: Since I was very young, I wanted to be a teacher. For the longest time, I struggled to settle on a subject I wanted to teach. In high school, I developed a passion for both math and science. Physics seemed to be a natural intersection of the two.
SC: What does it mean to you to be a scientist?
MA: Science is a way of thinking about the world. In my opinion, you don’t really need a science degree to be a scientist, as long as you have the right mindset.
SC: What excites you about science?
MA: I love discovery. It fascinates me that we can use tools like mathematics to explain our world to such a degree of accuracy. Human curiosity about our world is seemingly endless, and it excites me to be a part of human discovery.
SC: What are you most proud of?
MA: I am most proud of the development of my teaching skills. Understanding a complicated subject is important, but being able to communicate that knowledge to others is equally important, if not more so.

Senior Spotlight: Alex Federick

Alexandria Ebyni-Danyale Federick is a senior physics from Herndon VA, coming from Westfield High School in Chantilly.  She does research with Dr. Scarel on how radio waves effect the nervous system.  Alex is Air Force ROTC and will be commissioning as a 2nd Lieutenant in May 2020.  This interview has been prepared by our senior physics major Piper Smith

PS: Where would you like to take your passion for physics? Where would you
like your career to go?

AEF: I would like to take my passion for physics to meteorology, that has always been my career goal. While studying physics, and participating in the Air Force ROTC, I came to learn how interesting studying atmospheric physics 
would be now, in the space age and sounding rocket era. I hope to get my masters in atmospheric physics while continuing my active duty in the military. 

PS: What are some of your interests outside of school and physics?  

AEF: I am in Air Force ROTC and I also love color guard, I was in the JMU Color guard my freshmen year. Color guard in high school was an outlet for me to express my emotions and a stress relief for school. I am also involved in JMU Fitness Club, Arnold Air Society, and I work on campus at Madison Union as a building manager.  I love to stay active within the community and being apart of these organizations has allowed me to do that by volunteering.

PS: What are your longer term career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

AEF: My longer term career goal is to be a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration while also being a reservist in the Air Force. I want to be able to participate in scientific discovery but also continue fighting for our country.  

PS: What are you most proud of? 

AEF: I am most proud of my ability to stay in physics and in ROTC. The two are very much time and energy demanding in their own way and most people find it very difficult to juggle the two, and sometimes one alone.  Although my performance was probably not at the highest level, I was able to make it to my senior year without dropping one of them.  Through all the obstacles that came through my four years at JMU I persevered and now I am very close (one more semester! and the hardest classes are now behind me!) to graduating with a bachelor of science in physics.  This was not an easy journey, and it has also taught me a lot about myself.  

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Senior Spotlight: Matthew Baka

Matthew Baka is a senior physics major at James Madison University.  Matthew is from Richmond, VA, and along with pursuing a degree in physics he is minoring in mathematics as well.  Matthew was a member of the Marching Royal Dukes for three years at JMU where he played in the Saxophone-Tenor section.  He has previously done research with Dr. Melnikov in classical mechanics.  Aside from physics and marching band Matthew enjoys playing the piano, and practicing his cup stacking skills. Matthew is being interviewed by Daniel Hirt, a Junior Physics major at JMU.

What are your interests outside of school and physics?
Matthew enjoys speed running video games (specifically Portal 2) and playing the piano in his free time.  In addition to this, Matthew enjoys tackling coding projects in his free time, specifically in JavaScript.  Matthew’s coding projects have ranged from doing his own version of games such as Flappy Bird, Fruit Ninja, Pong, and Tetris, to creating code to answer a wide variety of questions he’s asked himself, such as a prime number finder, and an evolution simulation.
What are your long-term career goals?
Matthew hopes for his future job to be something related to programming, although he hasn’t dismissed the idea of attending graduate school for physics.  In addition to his proficiency in JavaScript Matthew also is proficient in HTML and CSS in which he helped design the webpage for Adoption-Share over a summer long internship. (
What led you to choose your major and what do you like about it?
Matthew chose a major in Physics because of its ability to explain what’s going on around us in the universe.  Matthew particularly enjoys the challenge physics presents with its difficult problems, and the process of solving these problems.   
What are you most proud of?
Matthew is most proud of his ability to solve abstract math questions which he has encountered spontaneously going through his life.  These questions range from solving for the amount of raindrops hitting the windshield as a function of time and velocity to, calculating how much weight is on any given person in a human pyramid.  Matthew is also very proud of the coding projects he’s completed, whether they be games, applets, or webpages. 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Senior Spotlight: Teddy Chu

Theodore Ming-Rei (Teddy) Chu is a Physics and Mathematics major, with a research focus in nuclear physics, working with Dr. Banu.  Teddy is from Ashburn, Virginia, attended Broad Run High School where he was member of the school chamber orchestra, the debate team, and the Latin club.  Also, he has studied abroad in Scotland at U. Edinburgh for Scottish literature and U. Saint Andrews for geology.   Teddy has been interviewed by his fellow senior physics major Alexandria Ebyni-Danyale Federick.

AF: Why physics?

TC: I've always loved science and had an idea that I wanted to pursue it when I was in grade school.  When I was in high school, I was pretty certain I wanted to go for chemistry until I actually took physics.  What really got me hooked with it was the idea that physics questions and explores the fundamental underpinnings of our existence, and it does so in a way that not many other fields do.  The unit on forces is probably where I started to better understand how physics defined the rules for the world in this beautiful mathematical structure, and it's been quite a ride ever since.

For my actual research focus in nuclear, my curiosity had been piqued by how vaguely it was described in grade school.  The idea of everything built on these fundamental blocks yet producing infinitely many wild forms and characteristics was fun to explore, and I wanted to know more.  After doing some reading at home and learning more about how complex the nuclear world was, I knew that I wanted to pursue it further in college.

As far as math goes, it's beautiful in a way different from physics.  When I'm able to take some principles in mathematics and use them or see how they can give rise to particular phenomena in physics, that's when I more fully appreciate both these fields.

AF: What are you doing after graduation? 

TC: I'd definitely like to pursue a doctoral program after college, but I want to wait a little beforehand.  I have an internship with the Naval Research Laboratory in the area of optical sensing lined up for when I graduate, which is a pretty big shift from what I've done in the past.  But, I'm very excited about the work they're doing, so we'll see in the future if I end up pursuing nuclear or optical physics for my doctorate.  Who knows though?  Maybe I'll be working in something radically different!

After graduating I definitely want to travel a bit more, especially around Canada and Western America.  Internationally, exploring Europe and Southeast Asia would be pretty rad.

In the grand scheme of things, I'm really just hoping I can work on being happy in the future.  I've had a lot of that up till now and I'm trying to keep the streak going, you know?

AF:  What is your greatest achievement thus far?

TC: I'm really proud that I have a year-long internship coming up with the Naval Research Laboratory.  I was always worried that my outlook after undergrad was working in a place where I either wouldn't be able to continue pursuing the experimental aspect of science or not utilizing the skills I gained in my time at JMU.  Having this opportunity is something that I had always hoped for but never imagined I'd be able to pursue for this length of time this soon after my undergraduate career.

AF: Any fun fact abut yourself?

TC: I really like the culinary arts as well!  I've made quite a few pies and sourdough rolls (with starter from JMU Chemistry's own Dr. Reisner!) among other things, and I love playing around with different ingredients.  Admittedly, I do tend to cook and bake more under stress, but it helps further develop my skill in each and take my mind off of things for a bit so it's kind of nice.  

Favourite thing I've made so far?  Blueberry-basil pie.

Also, I've worked at a coffee shop since my junior year of high school, and was a competitive barista as well.  It involved a lot of attention to technique and learning about coffee and tea, and especially a lot of late night coffee tastings.  And yes, I can do the fancy latte art things! 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The 2019 JMU High School Physics Teacher of the Year, Mr. Christopher Foust

Mr. Christopher Foust with freshman Devin Stipe
On November 5, 2019, we had the honor of hosting the 2019 JMU High School Physics Teacher of the Year, Mr. Christopher Foust, nominated by freshman physics major Devin Stipe, for a day to tour our department and talk about his experience as a physics educator with faculty, students, and even alumni!  This is the fourth year that the program has run, and articles for the previous winners can be found here.

Mr. Foust graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a MS in biology, where he focused on biodegradable plastics.  It was here where he first entered the education field by working as a graduate lab instructor for biology.  After graduating, he then worked with Capital One in their adult education department, teaching ethics and customer service.  Through these experiences, he developed a love for teaching and subsequently participated in the Virginia Department of Education’s Career Switcher Alternative Route to Licensure Program at the University of Virginia to gain teaching licensure in biology and physics.  In 2003, he was hired by Henrico and was posted at Hermitage High School, where he has remained ever since.

Receiving the JMU HSPToY Award from Dr. Christopher Hughes
Mr. Foust talked with us about some of what he’s learned as an educator, from how he tries to get his students excited about learning physics, the largest struggles he has as an educator, and where he sees potential for growth both in his own classroom and in physics instruction in general. 

As an educator, Mr. Foust’s greatest struggle lies not in the teaching or in interacting with students, but more with administrative tasks he may have to do.  His advice for getting through this work is to attack the most unpleasant or arduous tasks upfront and toughing them out.  While they’re far from the most fun, once they’re done, Mr. Foust notes that you’re free to do whatever you like after.  And if what you like is making physics classes enjoyable and getting people excited about learning the content, Mr. Foust has a great approach!

When it comes to getting students curious and driven to learn about physics Mr. Foust states that one of his best assets is in showmanship.  He has a “demo-a-day” approach where every day a new concept is introduced with a small but strange phenomenon and later explored in more detail.  An example would be the classic tablecloth yanking party trick to introduce friction.  It serves as something students may have already seen, is easily scalable for classrooms, and is novel but simple to get students trying to figure out what exactly is going on.  Another example of a demo would be hitting a textbook on his hand with a hammer to introduce the concept of pressure.  These demonstrations serve to make physics more accessible and more engaging to students, easing them into the subject while still teaching them the underlying concepts.

With technology becoming a much more integral part of the public education system, Mr. Foust sees much potential for growth in using these new tools in and out of the classroom.  He often uses the University of Colorado, Boulder’s PhET Lab simulations as a pre-lab activity for students, and there are many more tools that he hasn’t yet explored.  Another place for growth is in student-led instruction and flipped classroom methods, where Mr. Foust notes that some of the most meaningful learning occurs when one student explains a concept to another. 

We also got to hear a bit about Mr. Foust’s philosophy as an educator, and a bit of where it comes from.  Mr. Foust never took physics in high school himself, and he knows how large of a roadblock physics’s notoriety as a difficult subject can be to students taking and enjoying his class.  To this end, he believes in reassuring his students that the class isn’t going to be a straight lecture, using humor, experiments, and physics magic to get students to relax and engage with the subject.  He also believes deeply in letting students work together.  He structures many of his labs with more open-ended procedures, trying to get students to work together to figure out how they can achieve the goals for the lab that Mr. Foust sets.  He doesn’t believe that you need to be the greatest mathematician entering the class, nor in leaving it, but what matters the most is in understanding the concepts presented by physics, and their implications in the world.  For example, he often makes connections to physics with the physiology and anatomy class he teaches, harkening back to his experience with biology and also relating the material to a class that many of his students are concurrently taking.

Mr. Foust’s greatest source of pride in his career hasn’t been a fancy award or title.  It’s been in what he sees in the students.  When he’s able to inspire a student to pursue physics, or when a student finally gets just why physics is cool, Mr. Foust notes it’s one of the most satisfying feelings as a teacher.  He notes one of the most amazing moments as being when you have students during a more idle period, either in-between classes or at lunch for example, where they could talk about anything in the world, and yet they are arguing about what happens in physics or why something in the world happens because of physics.  Mr. Foust’s greatest joy in teaching has really been in learning from the students, letting the students explore and discover how to approach concepts in ways that he wouldn’t have thought of before.

Thank you again to Mr. Foust for visiting the JMU Department of Physics and Astronomy, and especially for being a fantastic educator.  We certainly don’t present the High School Physics Teacher of the Year Award lightly, and it’s always wonderful to get to know and share the impact that a great teacher has on our students.  Another thank you as well to Devin Stipe for nominating Mr. Foust, and we hope to see more fantastic physics educators in the future!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Senior Spotlight: Nicole Voce

 A new interview with another one of our awesome and fearsome seniors, by Maeven Ludke:

Name: Nicole Voce
Year: Senior
Majors/Minors: Physics & Math majors
Hometown: Great Falls, VA
High School: Paul VI Catholic High School

ML: What are some of your interests outside of school and physics?
NV: I really enjoy being active and I especially like being outdoors. I grew up spending summers and winters in upstate NY, so I’ve been hiking and skiing since I was a baby. I also enjoy camping and traveling, both in the US and abroad. 
ML: What challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career?
NV: I’ve faced the standard sexism that most females in Physics deal with. Alongside of that, when I was growing up, I was told by my female teachers that women should pursue subjects like English or History or “softer” sciences, like Psychology and Biology. Not only was I discouraged from seriously studying Math and Physics, my teachers also reinforced the idea that I, as a female, would never understand Math or Physics as well as my male classmates. I went to high school with my brother who is a year older than me. I would always have the same STEM teachers that he had and every single one would compare our performances. I cannot count the amount of times a teacher expected me to understand a concept just because my brother effortlessly understood the material. Most of the time, they implied that I wasn’t as good as my brother in these STEM fields because I was a female. All of this has led me to having a bad case of imposter syndrome. 

ML: What values, experiences, and/or perspectives do you feel you'll bring to the next stage in your life?

NV: I decided to double major in Physics and Math to prove to myself that I could do something difficult and succeed. During my time at JMU, my definition of “success” has changed from having good grades to learning as much as I can as well as I can. I still care about grades (only because I want to go to graduate school), but my focus has shifted from doing anything to get an A to actually absorbing and understanding the material presented to me. One of my main takeaways from college is that success is relative, and it doesn’t matter if other people consider you successful as long as you are confident that you’ve done the best you can do.

ML: What are you most proud of?

NV: I’m most proud of the fact that I was able to balance school, work, research, and life fairly well for my four years here. Academic wise, I’m most proud of my research and all of the work I’ve put into it. My project is my baby.

Senior Spotlight: Maeven Luedke

Maeven Luedke is a 4th year senior at JMU. She’s majoring in Physics and has minors in Mathematics and Theatre. Maeven is from Hamilton, VA and attended Loudoun Valley High School. She is extremely involved in Forbes Theatre here at JMU and hopes to find a career in acoustical engineering after graduation. Maeven is being interviewed by Nicole Voce, another senior Physics major.

NV: What advice would you give to high school or early undergraduate students who are interested in the science career path?
ML: My advice is to always find the time for outside hobbies—you will need breaks from science. My other advice is do not dismiss artistic classes or skills as being invaluable to your science career. Many famous scientists are also artists; this list includes Samuel Morse, the inventor of Morse Code as well as being the co-founder of the National Academy of Design in Manhattan, after training at the London’s Royal Academy of Arts. 
NV: What are some of your interests outside of school and physics?
ML: I am very involved in the theatre here at JMU. I had the opportunity to be a part of five shows freshman year, which I largely contribute to making Forbes my second home here at JMU.  I am also involved in the orchestra club here with a few other physics majors as well.
NV: What experience has contributed most to your learning?
ML: I have learned the most from being able to learn through both the creative side and the mathematical side of acoustics. I can spend hours learning in the theatre through setting up a complex sound configuration and then being able to use this in my math and psychology classes. Using the equations and relationships I learn in math, I can then apply them to different acoustical designs in the theatre and hear how these equations actually sound and what they do.
NV: What challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career?
ML: So far, the biggest challenge I’ve faced has been finding classes that interest what I want to do with my life currently. Through theatre, I’ve always had an interest in acoustics. Physics does not have classes really dedicated to acoustics; which has given me the ability to branch out into other departments to find these classes. I have been able to take a physics of waves class, a physics digital lab, two acoustical psychology classes, including one of them being an independent study, three semesters of psychology acoustics research, a math research acoustics class in which I did a joint project with Tom Carr, the acoustic engineer for Forbes, and a math class on waves. I am grateful to have been able to work with physics, theatre, psychology, math departments to take as many acoustics classes as I can, however, coordinating classes, time, and four departments has been one of the biggest challenges so far.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Senior Spotlight: Jorge Peña

Jorge Peña is a senior Physics major, Math and Robotics minor at James Madison University and currently does research in Nuclear Physics.  He is from Fairfax, Virginia where, while in high school, he ran track, cross country, and volunteered at a hospital for most of his high school career. Jorge initially didn't think he would go into Physics as he came into College as Pre-Med, but this shifted as he took courses at JMU.  Nikolas Roeske, another senior physics major, conducted this interview.

NR: What most excites you about doing research?

JP: The most exciting/interesting thing about research is not knowing what you are going to learn next. When it came to my research, we did a lot of prototyping and this is meant that with every new iteration we would usually come across a new problem and this allowed us to just learn more and more about the topic as we worked on it. Ultimately seeing the final product work and seeing the results is always satisfying as well.

NR: What lead you to this major?
JP: I was an engineering major, however I strongly disliked the classes and did not like the lack of choices in the field.  This caused me to switch to physics and I do not regret it.

NR: What are you most proud of?
JP: I am most proud of the fact that I am a role model for my younger brother. Who is in high school and I want him to see what he can accomplish by watching me.

NR: What do you like to do outside of classes?
JP: Some of my interest outside of the classroom include practicing the guitar and spending time with my little brother. Also I enjoy spending time with friends when I get the chance.

Senior Spotlight: Nikolas Roeske

Nikolas Roeske is a senior physics student at James Madison University with a minor in mathematics and a concentration in material physics. He attended Patriot High School in Bristow, Virginia.  While there, he was an active member of the schools marching band.  Nik was not always interested in physics, at a young age he had a strong interest in history and desired to be an archeologist.  Jorge Penaanother senior physics major conducted this interview. 

JP: What most excites you about doing research?

NR: The most exciting part about research is the satisfaction you get when you solve a problem that you have been working on for months. The whole time you have a professor with you who guides you through the process and teaches you.

JP: What led to choose your major and what do you like?

NR: I took engineering classes in high school. I enjoyed them very much. I took a physics class in college and thought it more interesting/insightful and so I decided to pursue it.

JP: What are some of your interests outside of school and physics?

NR: Even though I haven’t done it lately, I do enjoy the sport of fencing. I used to spend a good amount of time pursuing that.  Other than that, I enjoy spending time with friends outside of class and playing video games.

JP: What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my three older brothers, each of whom are currently successful in their own career paths. One of them is a nuclear physicist who is currently an officer in the Navy, while the others are in the Army and Marines.