Physics Students, Alumni and Faculty Journey to Path of Totality

solar eclipse group posting in filed

After Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Philip Choi witnessed 2017’s total solar eclipse in Oregon, he began planning a trip to experience the next one in April 2024. One might assume Choi is an eclipse chaser or motivated by his field of astronomy.

But that’s not what inspired him to plan a road trip to Mesquite, Texas, last month for three vanloads of Pomona students. Rather, his desire to build community made this five-day, logistics-heavy outing happen.

“Physics is hard,” says Choi. “A lot of the success we’ve had in keeping students and building their confidence is recognizing the collaborative nature of difficult things. Helping students build community with each other—that’s the thing that I value.”

Choi originally planned flights to and from Texas, but as the date of the eclipse approached, he realized that the process of getting there would make the experience more rewarding and personal.

“If you helicopter onto Mount Everest, it’d be amazing but not the same as climbing it,” says Choi.

So at 3 a.m. on a Friday morning, 15 physics students piled into three vans for a 20-hour drive. Each day students were assigned by lottery to one of the vehicles to “mix things up.” Everyone had different roles. If someone wasn’t driving, they might serve as a co-pilot or be in charge of activities.

Lina McRoberts ’27 was initially hesitant to miss a few days of class, but a friend’s appeal convinced her to join. “What other time would we be able to be in college and go on a five-day road trip through New Mexico and California and see an eclipse with people who are equally as passionate about astrophysics?” says McRoberts.

In the vans, students listened to each other’s music and played “silly games,” says McRoberts. She also enjoyed conversations with Choi about everything from physics to football to love.

Pei Qin ’23, a research assistant and teaching assistant in the Physics Department, was part of the expedition and helped with the planning.

“When you’re stuck in a car for seven to ten hours a day, you talk to people, you connect with people, you get to know what they like, what they care about,” says Qin. “The college experience is not just about the knowledge you gain but also about the community you build and the experiences you have.”

Along the way, the group made stops at The National Radio Astronomy Observatory as well as the city of Roswell, New Mexico. They took in a meteor crater outside Flagstaff, Arizona.

As the caravan approached its final destination 20 minutes outside Dallas, there was the possibility that cloud cover would obstruct views of the eclipse. The group considered whether to drive another four hours to get a better view. Thankfully, the sky gradually cleared up over the course of the morning.

The group staked out their viewing location at a campground where some stayed overnight. Several Pomona physics alumni joined for the day.

Sal Fu ’19 traveled from Northern California, where she is a Ph.D. student in astronomy at UC Berkeley.

“Part of what makes this experience so special is that the physics department was behind it and Phil’s work to bring people together and have spectacular special experiences,” says Fu.

Even as the partial phase of the eclipse began, group members were in awe. But Choi knew that nothing compares to a total eclipse.

“You wouldn’t think it would be a big deal, but when you are in the presence of it, to me, it feels like a religious experience,” says Choi. “It’s incredibly moving.”

As the sky went dark for four minutes, the group sat in silence. And they continued in silence for the next half hour.

“We didn't want the moment to end. We were still just sort of in shock,” says McRoberts.

“Everyone shares this feeling; they just don’t have the words to describe what it is,” says Choi. “It feels very personal, but you’re in community.”

This communal experience, in Choi’s mind, has shaped things back on campus.

“At the end of the day, when I look back on college, I’m going to remember something like this,” says McRoberts. “And it’s with the department that I feel so close to and well connected with.”