Physics is her jam

Kerstin Nordstrom, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Physics

Interview by Keely Savoie

Kerstin Nordstrom, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Physics, brings her love of knowledge to everything she does, from competing on “Jeopardy!” and teaching Tibetan monks, to engaging students in the classroom back home.

Nordstrom’s research is generally focused on flowing systems, such as liquids but also including systems of solid particles, like sand. One particular project is focused on the phenomenon of clogging — what causes individual particles to form an impenetrable mass at the mouth of an outlet?

Beyond the lab, Nordstrom applies her teaching skills around the world. Over the past summer, she participated in a program to teach Tibetan monks the basics of physics.

She traveled to India in May with several colleagues to deliver science lessons that spanned both cultural and language barriers. In doing so, she learned new ways to communicate with students and honed new classroom techniques to bring the energy and excitement the monks had for learning physics back home to her students.

“The monks love debating — they would really get into it and have these loud exchanges,” she said. “I encourage my students now to do the same. If you believe something, really defend it and make your peers work for it if they want to tell you something else.”

Mount Holyoke currently has 33 declared physics majors and the College is among the top 75 of all institutions, regardless of size, in the number of undergraduate women who go on to earn STEM doctorates. In a recent interview, Nordstrom spoke about her teaching philosophy and experience.

How do you keep your teaching fresh, especially when you teach the same introductory class year after year? 

A big component of keeping students interested is active engagement. I like to bring demonstrations into the classroom when I can. 

I'm into things that are particularly physical or messy. Like when I do the pendulum demonstration by letting a bowling ball on a rope swing away from me and showing them that the ball comes back and nearly hits me in the head. They can see that I'm willing to sacrifice life for them. 

The other fun sort of demonstrations that I love to do are the fluid demos using two tanks, one filled with water and one filled with glycerin, and different wind-up swimming toys. It is a valuable lesson about physics and movement in different fluid regimes, but it’s also funny because the things go splashing everywhere and everyone gets messy. 

How do you as a faculty member at Mount Holyoke encourage women who may not have had the opportunity to study physics to get involved in the field? 

One of the things that we do as a department is make sure that everyone who might want to major in physics, can. That means that you can take the first class of the physics major at any point in your first four semesters. 

A lot of colleges require physics majors to start their first semester of their first year, which would mean that they would have already had to know that that is what they wanted to do. A big part of opening up the field to young women is presenting them with the option, even if they have the impression that physics is not for them. 

I personally know how important this is because I did not have a great physics experience in high school and going into college I didn’t know whether I would find a home in physics. 

We also have created the very successful Peer-Led Undergraduate Mentoring System to support students with getting through classes. The program really lets them know that they're not alone. And to be a PLUMS mentor is a position of prestige for physics majors — they kind of consider it, um, a plum job. 

A key issue in filling the physics pipeline with female students is retention. It’s one thing to get the students in the classroom. It’s another to keep them in the profession. How do you handle that?

The biggest factor in determining whether one stays in physics is the development of a physics identity. Can you answer “yes” to the question, “Do I identify as a physics person?” Our whole program is set up to cultivate and deepen that identity from the moment a student declares a physics major. Faculty do not hold themselves apart from students. We are all colleagues. 

This democratization of the field also helps students further their careers. As a scientist, you have to be willing to talk to fellow scientists even if they're above you in rank. They are still your colleagues and can help you. 

At Mount Holyoke, we have another advantage in that students see women at every level of physics. Your professor is likely to be a woman. Your mentor is probably a woman. The smartest student in the class is probably a woman. Demonstrating by way of example that women are physicists on every level is a powerful way to challenge the stereotypes that keep women away from the field. 

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