Dr. Mooney smiling

Meet Isaac Mooney: Ph.D. in Physics' 22

Why did you decide to major in the Department of Physics and Astronomy?

As an eight-year-old, I stumbled upon "The Universe" in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking in my local library. Although I’m sure most of it (relativity, string theory, etc.) was over my head, I was fascinated by these exotic concepts and vowed to become a physicist when I grew up. I majored in physics at the University of Michigan, where I was lucky enough to participate in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program working with Professor Joern Putschke one summer. I found the experimental quantum chromodynamics (QCD) research I did fascinating and wanted to continue it so I applied to the Department of Physics and Astronomy for graduate school.

What did you do after you graduated?

I’m now a postdoctoral associate at Yale University’s Wright Laboratory working in their relativistic heavy-ion group. I’ve stayed in the same collaboration I did research for at Wayne State (the Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC or “STAR” Collaboration).

How did your studies at Wayne State prepare you for your career?

Wayne State gave me the necessary basic physics coursework for a career doing physics research. In addition, elective courses like Finite Temperature Field Theory were excellent preparation for my specific research area. The research environment within the relativistic heavy-ion group gave me hands-on experience lead by some of the best minds in our field.

Who was your favorite professor and why?

I have been lucky to have professors throughout my education that are not only great thinkers, but also great teachers. Setting aside my undergraduate and graduate advisors who are obviously my favorites, I would say I really enjoyed the two semesters of quantum field theory that I took with Professor Gil Paz. He was adept at making difficult material clear and was always available to help outside of class time. But to be clear, I never had a bad class or bad teacher throughout my time at Wayne State.

Did you do research? If so, what skills did it give you?

As mentioned above, I did research on the STAR experiment as a member of the relativistic heavy-ion group. My focus was on jets of particles emanating from high-momentum quark and gluon scattering subprocesses within collisions of protons or light ions at close to the speed of light. My research gave me many opportunities to hone my problem-solving skills and critical thinking which are invaluable in any profession, but especially research. I also developed skills necessary in industry if I ever decide to leave academia, like programming, working with large datasets, data visualization, speaking at conferences and working collaboratively.

What was your favorite thing about the department?

I loved how much it felt like a family. Holiday parties, outdoor barbecues, fireworks watching, etc., all encouraged students to get to know each other on a personal level. The professors participated in events and were very approachable, de-emphasizing the hierarchy between themselves and students. Being human and a member of the community was emphasized, without detracting from the high quality of scholarship and research being done.

What advice would you give to current students?

Sometimes it is tempting to take on every responsibility and participate in every activity. You should definitely get involved in whatever is interesting to you! But try to avoid spreading yourself too thin between classes, research, community involvements, etc. You might develop an impressive-looking CV, but it’s better to give yourself a chance to make a real impact in the small set of things that are really important to you. And you have to remember to give yourself some time for breaks, for hobbies, for friends and family, and for enjoying the great activity that the city of Detroit has to offer while you have the opportunity. You’re already setting yourself up well for your future by pursuing a physics degree at Wayne State. So prepare well, but don’t stress too much about your future. Enjoy your time in the department.