Eighteen Smith alumnae who majored in physics and astronomy will return to campus this weekend for a symposium that celebrates their career success along with the retirement this year of longtime physics department members, Malgorzata Pfabe, Piotr Decowski and Jerzy Pfabe.
“Traveling Back in Time,” a two-day symposium free and open to the public on Saturday and Sunday, April 9-10, will feature individual presentations by alumnae, as well as group question-and-answer sessions. View the schedule.
Meanwhile, several participating physics alumnae responded to questions about studying physics and astronomy at Smith.
Gate: What prompted your decision to major in physics at Smith?
Molly Mulligan GR’05, Mechanical and industrial engineering, University of Massachusetts, Amherst: I decided to major in physics because all of the professors were so inviting, the curriculum was well laid out, and I thought that majoring in physics would help me figure out if I wanted to be an astronomer, a physicist or an engineer.
Emily Willis ’96, International Space Station Payload Operations Director, NASA—Marshall Space Flight Center: I had an excellent Physics teacher in High School and decided then that I wanted to major in Physics. I chose to go to Smith because of its excellent reputation for educating women in the sciences.
Gate: When did you decide to major in physics?
Emily Gardel ’06, engineering and applied sciences, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University: I was really excited about majoring in physics during the summer after my first year. I spent the summer on campus conducting research with Nalini Easwar [professor of physics] and a senior physics major. It was the first time I ever did research and I was completely enthralled about discovering something new.
Gate: What was your focus as a Smith physics major?
Emily Willis: My original intent was to major in physics and astronomy, however I fell in love with electronics and electricity and magnetism when I took those courses taught by Nalini Easwar and Piotr Decowski, so I changed my plan to majoring in physics with a minor in electrical engineering.
Molly Mulligan: I loved the electronics class and quantum mechanics. The research I did was mainly focused in the astronomy department.
Gate: What are your foremost memories of studying physics at Smith?
Jacky Nyamwanda ’99, senior medical dosimetrist, CMD, Department of Radiation Oncology, Massachusetts General Hospital: Back then there were very few physics majors; I was one of three in my year, I believe. It always felt like a family and the faculty knew us very well. Doreen Weinberger [associate professor of physics] was my advisor and she was very warm and full of encouragement.
Molly Mulligan: I remember late nights in the physics lounge doing quantum mechanics homework and taking over every inch of board space in that room and the attached lab. We would get delirious around 2 a.m., but we had fun!
Emily Willis: I have wonderful memories of my time at Smith. All of the professors were good friends and great teachers. I remember spending many hours in their offices while they patiently helped me with all my questions. I remember spending a lot of time studying with friends in the physics lounge.
Gate: Do you have advice for current physics majors?
Emily Gardel: It took me years to understand the looks people would give me when I told them I was a physics major. I eventually realized that they were impressed with this accomplishment. Use the fact that people are impressed with your physics background to your advantage.
Jacky Nyamwanda: Take a quantum leap and think outside the box every now and then. A physics degree offers a lot of different career paths that you may not have considered. If you’re not sure about graduate school, definitely take a break and work in the real world before making a final decision.
Emily Willis: You’ve picked a great Major! In addition to learning how our universe works you are learning critical thinking skills, problem-solving techniques, and how to collaborate. These skills will be important no matter what path you take after graduation.
Molly Mulligan: Have fun! Ask questions! Make sure you do at least some of your problem sets with other people so that you can laugh a lot.