Why I Majored in Physics

Yaru Luo '24

Did you know that the reason why highway mirages form on a hot day is because light travels in a curved path, rather than a straight path, so that it can travel the path of least time? It just knows to go in a curve instead of a straight line. It’s following something called Fermat’s Principle. I’m majoring in physics because I love learning about optics. All of my hands-on research these past few years—spanning frequency combs, gravitational waves, and single-molecule biophysics—converge through optics, and I’ll be pursuing a Ph.D. in experimental optical physics after I graduate.

I’m a physics and English double major, and I fell into the Physics Department pretty serendipitously. But liking the subject matter was just happenstance, and I think I could have found myself loving any subfield of the sort that greatly challenges me and helps me understand the world that we are all living in. The real reason that I majored in physics was because of the incredible community and culture in the department. I've found so much deep inspiration in my mentors since my first year, mentors who cared for me not only as a student but also as a person coming of age in college. The department’s traditions, professors, and staff bring so much joy to the department, from the annual end-of-year talent-no-talent show to kitten social hours to Prof. Richard Mawhorter’s field trips to the beach to Natalie’s office candy and Hardy helping students build bikes downstairs in The Basement.

As an FLI student, I also deeply care about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), particularly towards making this field accessible to students of minority backgrounds, and this is a value that the department shares. I think it’s really easy to feel daunted by such a white- and male-dominated field like physics and self-select out of it, but I have felt supported by department-wide curriculum and student-driven initiatives, such as the Decolonizing STEM Symposium, ALPhA (the awesome lxdies* in physics and astronomy), and the student-led PHYS009 (now called ID009) class, that seek to acknowledge these issues of DEI in physics. These components have been incredibly valuable to my physics education. Despite starting the track on Zoom, my first-year physics peers are still some of my best friends today.

Looking back at my time in the department, I cannot help but be immensely grateful. I’m really lucky that I happened to fall into such an amazing place.

Kendra Nguyen '24

Looking into the night sky, I always wondered if someone was looking back at me light-years away. What is their world like? Do they also wonder if someone is looking back at them? Studying astrophysics allows me to bridge the gap in this long-distance relationship. Specifically, I research exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system. My work helps answer such questions as: Are there other planets like Earth? How do planets evolve? And how many potentially habitable planets are there?

Given my curiosities, I always knew that I wanted to pursue a STEM major, and the joy that stargazing and planetarium shows brought me led me to exploring astrophysics at Pomona. However, I did not choose to become an astrophysics major solely because of my research interests but also because I genuinely found a home with the department. Coming into the department as a first-generation, low-income (FLI) student, I struggled with imposter syndrome. It was intimidating to be in classes with students who had a strong STEM background when my high school lacked STEM resources. Yet, the peer mentors for my introductory physics courses provided great support despite being spread across multiple time zones while on Zoom, and professors also reassured me that I could succeed in physics despite my own self-doubts. Most impactfully, Professor Janice Hudgings told me that if I felt like I didn’t have a space in the department, she would make that space. From her words, I knew that the Physics and Astronomy Department was a place where I would be able to find the support I needed to not only prepare for a career in astrophysics but to also thrive as a well-rounded scientist.

As I prepare to begin graduate school to continue researching exoplanets, I am grateful to have been a part of the PhysAstro community. From trying new treats during Physics Snack to exploring new places like Idyllwild during the Halona trip and seeing everyone’s talents at PhysFest, I get to experience so much life in our little corner of the universe.