Meet Our Majors

Meet some of our physics majors.

David Simpson-Heil ’22

Hometown: Corte Madera, CA
Major: physics; minor: mathematics

What was your motivation to major in physics?

During my first year in high school, my chemistry teacher explained the process of a star’s death in a massive supernova explosion. The explanation blew my mind, so I started diving down rabbit holes about physics for the rest of high school. Later, while learning calculus, I started seeing the mathematical foundation of physics, and learning about how math and physics conceptually merge solidified my interest in studying the subject. 

Can you describe working relationships with physics professors? Are there any standout classes you've taken?

I’ve found that the professors in the physics department are very accessible and happy to help students grasp concepts both in and out of class. I’ve had a great time with pretty much all of my courses in the department, but one that really stands out for me was “Astrophysics” with Professor Sabrina Stierwalt. Astrophysics was the first subfield in physics that really grabbed my attention so I was already excited. Professor Stierwalt turned out to be super down to earth (haha), and she clearly cares about making sure that her students truly understand the topics she’s teaching.

We studied Hubble Space Telescope images to better understand the influence galaxy interaction had on star formation. It was great to learn research techniques and be involved in a developing area of astrophysics research.

Have you taken part in any research opportunities?

During the summer of 2020, I participated in Oxy’s Summer Research Program, working with Professor Stierwalt and the Oxy Galaxy Group to study dwarf galaxy mergers. We studied Hubble Space Telescope images to better understand the influence galaxy interaction had on star formation. It was great to learn research techniques and be involved with a developing area of astrophysics research.

What's most compelling about physics?

Trying to figure out how and why things happen the way they do is a wonderful challenge. There’s a lot going on in the universe, and physics is all about trying to make sense of it. I love the moments when a concept or problem suddenly clicks, and I’m able to finally wrap my head around it.

Do you have advice for a student considering a major in physics?

Take advantage of the resources at your disposal. The professors are super helpful in their office hours, there are peer learning opportunities for the introductory courses and you can work with your classmates to wrap your head around the topics you find more difficult. These resources not only help you perform better academically, they also allow you to form stronger relationships with your peers and professors that can open up more opportunities for you in the future.


Tehreem Hai ’23

Hometown: Karachi, Pakistan
Major: physics; minor: mathematics

What was your motivation to major in physics?

Like a lot of physics majors, I lucked out in getting a great high school physics teacher who encouraged me and explained concepts in a really interesting way. I eventually realized that physics was the only class that I looked forward to, asked questions in and put a lot of effort into.

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy or elsewhere?

I worked with Professor Sabrina Stierwalt last summer at the URC’s Summer Research Program, where we researched the effects of mergers between dwarf galaxies on star formation in those galaxies with some really cool Hubble data. I plan on working with her in this summer’s program as well. [Editor’s note: Tehreem virtually attended the 2021 American Astronomical Society Conference, where she presented her research on merging galaxies and super star clusters to other scientists.]

What do you find most compelling about studying physics?

I love the sheer range of it; you can zoom in on the tiniest particle and see how it moves and then you can zoom out to study galaxy clusters and the beginning of the universe, sometimes in the same field of research. 

An important part of being a scientist (and a science communicator) is being able to accurately convey your work and science to the public ... at Oxy I have been able to take coursework to prepare myself for that.

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

I want to go to graduate school after Oxy and pursue a career in academia, and I am also interested in science communication. Unlike the expectations associated with the popular image of the isolated, reclusive scientist, an important part of being a scientist (and a science communicator) is being able to accurately convey your work and science to the public. This is not always fully explored at more STEM-focused schools, but at Oxy I have been able to take coursework to prepare myself for that. One of my CSPs, taught by Professor Natalie Muren from the chemistry department, focused on science communication and convinced me to pursue it while teaching me the critical thinking and communication skills I would need for it. The core classes I have taken, including those from the Comparative Studies in Literature & Culture and education departments, have let me make interdisciplinary links and stay aware of the world, which informs and is informed by physics.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in physics?

This is something I realized fairly late: there is no such thing as being ‘smart enough’ to pursue physics. If you think you like it enough to get yourself through the difficult/boring parts, you already belong. Hold on to that fact if imposter syndrome strikes.

Check out Tehreem’s Urdu Mein social media site, where she posts weekly summaries of academic and scientific topics in her native language along with original art by her friends.


Gabe Gregory ’21

Hometown: Kingston, WA
Major: physics; concentration: physics; minor: mathematics

What was your motivation to major in physics? Was there a specific inspirational experience?

My first year at Oxy I attended the Physics Phestival, where physics professors present their research and talk about research opportunities for undergrads. There was a presentation on dark matter research and I thought it was super cool.

Can you describe your working relationships with physics professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

The physics faculty are generally outgoing and passionate about what they teach. Classes are very rigorous but professors make sure that you understand the material. I took an advanced electrodynamics class and have used some pretty cool math from that course in my own research.

Every course in the department builds on the next, and after taking many courses you find yourself really understanding how things work. I really feel like I’ve gotten a whole picture of the universe and that's really exciting.

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy?

I have participated in the Undergraduate Research Program at Oxy since the summer of my sophomore year. I started my research with Professor Dan Snowden-Ifft in the summer of 2019 estimating background radiation in the DRIFT dark matter detector. I continued that research into the school year, Snowden-Ifft and I came up with an experiment we could construct based on an offshoot of the dark matter research. I was given additional funding from Oxy to work on this, and built a high-vacuum system to measure the masses of gas particles inside the dark matter detector. I’ve been working on the experiment for more than a year now and am getting ready to pass it on to a couple of younger students within the physics department.

What is the vibe of the physics department at Oxy?

The vibe of the department definitely has a hint of dorkiness, but it definitely comes from a true passion for the material, both from students and faculty.

What do you find most compelling about studying physics?

Every course in the department builds on the next, and after taking many courses you find yourself really understanding how things work. I really feel like I’ve gotten a whole picture of the universe and that's really exciting.

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

I’m planning on going to grad school to pursue a Ph.D. in physics. I don't think I would have gotten the research opportunities that I’ve gotten at Oxy at a bigger school, and I never would have realized how much I love research.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in physics?

You don't need to know physics going in, and should never feel out of place. If you are interested in physics and like learning, the faculty will do everything in their power to get you to become a physicist.


Caroline Fuller ’21

Hometown: Walnut Creek, CA
Major: physics; minor: mathematics

What was your motivation to major in physics? Was there a specific inspirational moment or experience?

I originally planned to be a math major, but decided to switch to physics after taking “Electricity and Magnetism” for my lab science requirement. I loved that everything felt really applicable to the real world. When the professor did a demonstration where he blew up a nail in class, I thought, yep, this is going to be pretty cool.

Can you describe your working relationships with physics professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

The physics professors are great because they are so knowledgeable but also very approachable about any material. One standout class was “Analytical Dynamics” with Professor Dennis Eggleston. In “Intro to Mechanics,” there are some things that get neglected for simplicity, but in Analytical, you finally get to solve those problems in full without neglecting anything. Other standouts have been “Waves & Thermal” with Professor Dan Snowden-Ifft and “Space, Time and Black Holes” with Professor Alec Schramm (as he would say, relativity is “geeky cool”).

The physics department at Oxy has this kind of intelligent buzz. Everyone, faculty and students, is very smart and curious. People always want to hear about what others are working on and share their own stuff which makes for a really engaging place to learn. 

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy?

I am doing research with Professor Snowden-Ifft on solar energy production in Southern California. We created a computer algorithm which takes metered power data from Southern California Edison and calculates the amount of solar power produced in the same region and time. We were able to track six years of solar growth in our initial region and are currently working to improve the algorithm and expand it with further data. 

What is the vibe of the physics department?

The physics department at Oxy has this kind of intelligent buzz. Everyone, faculty and students, is very smart and curious. People always want to hear about what others are working on and share their own stuff which makes for a really engaging place to learn. 

What do you find most compelling about studying physics?

I think the most compelling thing about physics is that as you study it, you start to see things in different ways. Like how a refrigerator works or why ocean tides act the way they do. I think it's so interesting to be able to explain and understand real-world phenomena. 

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in physics?

My advice would be to not neglect your math classes. As you do more and more physics, it becomes more math-heavy. Also, find the areas of physics that you really like. There are so many different areas of focus within the major, and you don’t necessarily have to love them all, but notice which ones you do like and stick with them.


Jasper Lee ’22

Hometown: South Pasadena, CA
Major: physics (chemistry concentration); minor: mathematics

What was your motivation to major in physics?

I have always enjoyed science throughout my life. In high school, I found that I thoroughly enjoyed physics and calculus with respect to the other sciences. What particularly inspired me about physics was that you could describe and understand the entirety of the universe using mathematics.

Can you describe your working relationships with physics professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

The professors in the physics department are brilliant. I haven’t once felt as though my professor didn’t understand the concept they were teaching. One pro of being a physics major at Oxy is that the physics department itself is small and professors ultimately have more time to commit to their students. In my experience, professors are always very reachable and willing to set up meetings in order to help with your understanding of a topic. One class in particular that stood out to me was “Math Methods;” while a very difficult class, I felt that it truly prepared me to make a jump from a basic to more advanced conceptual understanding of mathematical topics in physics.

The physics professors are all very intelligent and willing to help.

What is the vibe of the physics department at Oxy?

The vibe of the physics department is definitely pretty unique. The physics professors are all very intelligent and willing to help. In terms of the students, I’ve found that for such a small group, we are a pretty diverse group of folks. The majors come from all walks of life, and have a pretty wide range of passions and interests.

What do you find most compelling about studying physics?

Learning about the laws that govern our universe!

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in physics?

Be ready to work hard and learn lots of math! Don’t be afraid to ask professors for help, a lot of times folks struggle with the same concepts. The professors are always willing to work with you to help solidify your conceptual understanding. Lastly, seek out your upperclassmen within the major for advice because they will be able to share their experiences and help.

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