I expected Ben Pollard to be aligning lasers in a dark basement. As a sixth year graduate student in the Department of Physics, he anticipates defending his PhD research this spring. However, he actually spends much of his time connecting with other physics students on a personal level. Their main question: how do you change the culture of physics and build community from within? Ben’s answer is finding a way “to cultivate physicists as people.”
Ben is one of the founding members of CU-Prime, a student-led organization that focuses on diversity and community in the physics department. CU-Prime hosts research talks, oversees a mentoring program, and creates a support system in a one credit supplementary class for budding physicists.
From its grassroots beginning on the lawn of Farrand Field in 2013, it has grown and evolved into a close community of students that remain self-reflective about their mission.
CU-Prime “works to change the culture of physics to be more inclusive, especially for women, minorities, and first-generation college students,” Ben describes. He firmly believes that making physics culture more diverse makes all physicists better people and better researchers, including himself.
“My community brings out the best in me. I’m proud of the role I’ve established in this culture,” he says.
This idea of community and understanding others propelled Ben to supplement his graduate work in nano-optics with research in a new and growing field: Physics Education Research (PER). Wanting to improve the methods used to teach physics, many prominent physicists at CU study how people learn, or, more importantly, don’t learn physics.
“It’s rewarding to think about how [physics] is being communicated,” he says, “because we can think about change – how to teach better, how to mentor better.”
Ben wants to bring the creativity and problem-solving required in scientific research to a classroom setting. He loves teaching and mentoring, but envisions himself implementing large-scale change in how undergraduate physics is taught. He desires to make classes more student-driven rather than teacher-driven. To do this, Ben’s next step is to pursue a postdoc position in PER after graduation.
Ben found a culture here at CU Boulder that has been critical to supporting his endeavors. “Students here are much more likely to help each other out. We’re all in this together. We can learn a lot from each other,” he says, “It’s a strong community because we’re connected to others.”
Ben’s down to earth personality only makes him more personable, more human, and more relatable. And he’s truly passionate about the people he interacts with, specifically his peers. “They are more willing to see you as a whole person, and less as a competitor,” he says.
Alex Lind on the left playing horn, and Michelle Miller on the right playing clarinet. Alex is a second year physics grad student at CU who does research in a lab at NIST, and Michelle is a recently-graduated CU PhD physicist.
In the CU community, Ben can be a human being as well as a graduate student. After a long day in the lab, he often plays the bassoon with the campus orchestra and even invited me to listen to his woodwind quintet play a gig at a local brewery. Where else but Boulder can one find a band of classical instruments performing in a bar?
Ben says his love of both music and science isn’t unique. After all, his quintet is made up of fellow scientists.
“I like seeing the beauty that plays out [in physics], taking ideas and giving life to them. It’s similar with music.”
As a musician, physicist, and education researcher, it’s difficult to imagine what Ben will do in the future, and he doesn’t know fully either – after all, he is human. Yet, his passion for understanding people and physics won’t change. That much is certain.
By Kathryn Wall