The Joy of Science: A Memorial Symposium Honors Physics Professor Piotr Decowski

Physics professor Piotr Decowski (center), who died of cancer in May, was known for his hands-on teaching. He is shown here with Ellen Keene '05, as she presents her thesis poster, and associate physics professor Gary Felder.

Darcy Lambert ’05 has only one regret about studying with physics professor Piotr Decowski during her years at Smith.

“I don’t think I ever told him how important he was to me,” said Lambert of Decowski, who died in May of lung cancer at 74.

Lambert took just one physics class with Decowski, who taught at Smith for 22 years before he retired in 2012. However, she spent two years as Decowski’s research assistant working on experiments in particle physics—an experience she says made a lasting impact on her life and career.

“It opened my eyes,” said Lambert, who now has a master’s degree in applied physics and works as an engineer for LAM Research Corporation in California.

“When I started college, I had no idea what it would feel like to really do science,” Lambert said. “Thanks to Professor Decowski, I got to be involved in new research, asking questions nobody had ever asked before.”

Lambert is one of more than a dozen alumnae who will return to campus on Saturday, Nov. 1, for a daylong symposium in honor of Decowski. The Piotr Decowski Memorial Symposium, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in McConnell Hall, will feature talks by guest speakers, presentations by Decowski’s former students and time for informal sharing by participants. A reception will follow to give current students and alumnae an opportunity to network about physics courses and opportunities in the field.

Among the speakers are Decowski’s son, Patrick, now a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, as well as Malgorzata Pfabé, Smith professor emerita and lecturer in physics. Other invited speakers are Krishna Kumar, a professor at SUNY Stonybrook, and Barbara Badelek, a professor at the University of Warsaw—both former research colleagues of Decowski’s.

Decowski’s wife, Ineke ter Meulen, will also attend the symposium.

The event is designed to celebrate Decowski’s legacy at Smith, said physics professor Nalini Easwar—a legacy that extends not only to physics majors but also to students in other disciplines who experienced his talents in the classroom.

“Piotr was a big part of making physics visible to the rest of the campus,” Easwar said. “He was a great teacher, a great colleague and a real citizen of Smith.”

Easwar still remembers the impression Decowski made when he first interviewed for a faculty position at Smith in 1990. A native of Poland, Decowski earned his doctorate and taught for many years at the University of Warsaw. He also worked at other international research and educational institutions, including the Center for Nuclear Research in Juelich, Germany.

In his interview at Smith, Easwar said Decowski gave a glimpse of his hands-on teaching style.

“He asked if anyone had a folding umbrella,” Easwar recalled. “He then opened the umbrella and used it to illustrate a key idea in his talk. He was always thinking of ways to make things easy for the students to understand.”

Pfabé also praised Decowski’s ability to make complex scientific theories clear and interesting to his students.

“He would go to the classroom with a little cart full of equipment for his demonstrations,” said Pfabé, who first met Decowski when they were both students at the University of Warsaw.

Pfabé said Decowski’s passion for physics was palpable in his classroom and his laboratory.

“He loved the material he taught and the way he taught it would make the students interested, too,” she said.

Patrick Decowski, now 41, said his father especially enjoyed teaching at Smith, with its small classes and “more intense student-faculty interaction.”

“He also loved including students in his research,” the younger Decowski said, when reached at his office in the Netherlands. “I spent a semester at the University of Massachusetts in 1993 doing a project with my dad. So I also got to experience him as a mentor.”

Anna Boehle ’11 said Decowski is the reason she majored in physics at Smith and is now pursuing graduate studies in astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“His was the first college physics class I ever took,” said Boehle, who also plans to attend the memorial symposium on campus. “He was such a caring teacher, always available for questions. I didn’t feel scared about the subject.”

When asked to describe the main lesson she learned from Decowski, Lambert said, “Joy.”

“It was clear he got joy out of his research,” she said. “He taught me that the joy of scientific curiosity can actually be your career.”