Charting the Path of Particles and Professions
In some ways, physics is the study of pathways, like the flow of light through media or the twisting trails of subatomic particles spawned in an accelerator. For Douglas Petkie, head of WPI’s Physics Department, the concept of pathways has a different meaning. Many people, he says, see physics as a discipline with one primary career trajectory: from bachelor’s degree, to PhD, to academia. In reality, physics graduates are offered a wealth of ways to use their education to build satisfying careers.
Petkie says his department works to get that message across through a multifaceted, multilevel campaign that encompasses pre-college programs, undergraduate research experiences, graduate education and research, and a teacher preparation program. Connecting and integrating these efforts is mentorship, the key to the campaign’s success. In an interconnected web of support, faculty, staff, and students offer guidance, encouragement, and helpful information. “When all of these things connect,” Petkie says, “that’s when it starts to snowball.”
Examples of mentorship abound. They include the department’s 30 to 40 peer learning assistants (PLA): undergraduates who help other students master the content of physics courses, but who also counsel them on career paths. Like all learning assistants across campus, they receive training in pedagogy and mentoring through the Morgan Teaching and Learning Center; Rudra Kafle, associate professor of teaching in the Physics Department, is also an associate director for TA (teaching assistant) and PLA development in the Morgan Center.
L Dana, the department’s lab manager (who also helps train the learning assistants), never misses an opportunity to chat with undergraduate and graduate students about career opportunities.
Physicist James Eakin is senior technical operations manager in LEAP, the Lab for Education and Application Prototypes, a state-of-the-art educational and research center focused on integrated photonics that WPI runs in partnership with Quinsigamond Community College (QCC). He regularly talks with participants in WPI summer enrichment programs about his own career path, which has included stints as an entrepreneur and in industry.
Among the challenge the Physics Department tries to address is the persistence of misconceptions about physics and its role in science, engineering, and technology, Petkie says. “Physics is the fundamental aspect of how the world works,” he notes, “which makes it is a good starting point for many career paths.”
The quest to create a broader appreciation for physics begins at the pre-college level. Petkie says many WPI faculty members take part in outreach programs aimed at K–12 students, including WPI summer programs like Ignite (for rising 7th and 8th graders), Launch and Frontiers (for high school students), and TouchTomorrow (for budding scientists and engineers of all ages). There is also the Physics Department’s annual Goddard Cup, a water rocket competition named for the most WPI’s famous physicist graduate, Robert H. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry.
A number of physics faculty members incorporate pre-college outreach into their sponsored research program. For example, Lyubov Titova, associate professor, and Kun-Ta Wu, assistant professor, built K–12 outreach into their National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awards. Titova runs an NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) program, which empowers students from traditionally disadvantaged groups to become leaders in renewable energy. This summer, students in the REU program helped out with a hands-on program on optics for 8th and 9th grade girls that Titova ran for the Girls Inc. Eureka program, which teaches girls about STEM concepts and career opportunities.
Another example of the department’s integrated approach to mentoring involved students from nearby Doherty High School. Working with QCC and the national Spark Photonics Foundation, which introduces high school students to the emerging fields of integrated photonics and advanced manufacturing, the high school seeks out internships for seniors that emphasize value creation and entrepreneurship. When it asked Petkie last year to take on eight interns, he assembled a team of WPI undergraduate and graduate students who, with help from James Eakin, senior technical operations manager, LEAP, organized several projects connected with the integrated photonics labs in LEAP.
Career opportunities in physics include a wide range of job options, Petkie says, including working in government (in such fields as space exploration and climate change), in medicine and healthcare, in engineering and robotics, and in industry. Another path well supported at WPI is the one that takes students into K-12 classrooms. Through its STEM Education Center (SEC), the university offers a teacher preparation program for students who want to teach in STEM disciplines. Students in the physics program earn a BS in physics or other aligned field and a Massachusetts Initial Teaching License.
WPI, represented by the Physics Department and the SEC, is also member of PhysTEC, an organization dedicated to eliminating the national shortage of highly qualified physics teachers. In 2019 WPI was chosen to be a PhysTEC site, which, the organization says, means it is “well poised to dramatically improve their physics teacher education programs and have impacts beyond their campuses, serving as national models for program improvement.” All PhysTEC sites must employ a teacher-in-residence; Thomas Noviello, who filled that role at WPI when he was a physics teacher and science department head at Leominster, Mass., High School, recently joined the WPI faculty in a role, Petkie says, “that will strengthen our connection to the STEM Education Center through PhysTEC and WPI’s teacher preparation program.”
The Physics Department also helps current physics teachers find new ways to engage students. For example, department faculty teach in WPI’s Master of Science in Physics for Educators program. And this past summer, Petkie participated in an NSF-funded Research Experience for Teachers program. As part of the program, Anna Valdez, a middle school STEM teacher from Duxbury, Mass., and Simon Rees, a senior physics major at WPI, enrolled in the teacher preparation program; they worked with Petkie and two WPI undergraduates on a project that used spectroscopy to monitor moisture in products to develop more efficient drying and energy conserving technologies in the pulp and paper industry
While every physics student’s path is unique, some stand out, Petkie says. He cites the story of Javier Mann, a nontraditional student who attended Berklee College of Music before deciding to change course and enroll at QCC, He was able to transfer to WPI with the aid of a $1 million NSF Scholarship in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) program (overseen by Izabela Stroe, associate teaching professor of physics). Before his senior year he participated in an REU program (which led him to scrap plans to go into industry) and instead will pursue a graduate degree in physics at WPI. He is currently at SUNY Polytechnic Institute on a six-month research contract as a result of WPI’s link to the New York institution through LEAP and the national AIM Photonics initiative.
“Javier is someone who undertook a host of academic experiences, but still wasn’t sure of his path,” Petkie says. “But with the help and support of many people at WPI, he has found a direction that works for him.”
That is the department’s real goal, according to Petkie. “We are trying to give young people experiences early on to help them find out who they want to be," he says. "We offer the experiences, give them role models, and provide them with mentoring. It’s all in service of helping put students on career paths that they will enjoy and that can help them make a difference in the world.”