Meet Joseph Pakizer: B.S. in Physics '19
Why did you decide to major in the physics and astronomy department?
My interest in physics started as a transition from the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science at WSU. In high school, I loved my chemistry and AP chemistry courses, so naturally, I wanted to continue my studies in the subject during my college years. It was when I started asking questions to my early chemistry professors and wanting deeper, more mathematically rigorous answers that caused me to rethink my major.
I remember one day in my organic chemistry course when I asked my professor, “... but what is the mathematics that shows this reaction mechanism happens this way?” to which he replied, “Well, that’s really a physics question.” This interaction caused me to make an appointment with Dawn Neidermiller at the Department of Physics and Astronomy that day to discuss changing majors. Ever since then, I’ve never looked back on that choice as physics has given me the intuition coupled with mathematics to find deeper answers to problems.
What did you do after you graduated? Did you go to graduate school or get a job?
As a participant in the AGRADE program at WSU, I transitioned directly to a physics master’s degree program after finishing my undergraduate studies. Although the opportunity had been available to proceed to a Ph.D. program, I wanted a change of pace and scenery; so, I have since started searching for industry positions where I can apply my physics knowledge to new problems outside of academia.
How did your major prepare you for your career or graduate school?
Primarily, I see physics as a sub-branch of applied mathematics in its core methodology. You are confronted with a problem/question, then you use mathematical tools to get an answer. Learning why and how to use these math tools is a huge skill in its own right. However, most of the work, time and critical thinking are done trying to figure out how to get to a meaningful question statement in the first place and when to use all these resources at your disposal (data, math tools, lab instruments, computers, etc.) and cohesively bring them together in the pursuit of solving a problem. This, in my opinion, is where physics shines. It prepares you with the intuition needed to think about our reality, question it and bring resources together to try and solve these questions. The critical thinking, analysis and problem-solving strategies are what sets a physicist apart from other fields.
What was your favorite class and why?
My favorite class was Classical Mechanics I (PHY 5200) taught by Dr. Alexey Petrov. This was my first real physics class taken as a member of the department. It wasn’t so much the material that makes it a favorite (as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all physics subjects encountered thus far), but it was Dr. Petrov’s teaching style that ignited my interest in physics. He was always asking questions and challenging the student’s answers as we gave them. Not only was this humbling, but it also started to help me develop a sense for critical thinking. With most of my classmates engaged, the class took on a truly conversational style. This is the best way to learn, in my opinion, as actively collaborating with both the teacher and students helps gain much deeper knowledge about the material and helps retain it longer. It also helps build friendships; many I’ve held on to this day.
Who was your favorite professor and why?
My favorite professor has to be Dr. Alex Matos-Abiague. I took modern physics (PHY 3300) with him at a time when I was unsure about where I would fit into the department in terms of research, as many of my peers were starting to participate in the Wayne State Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. During the course, I think Dr. Matos could see something in me and my abilities that I was unable to at the time. After one lecture, he asked what interested me and what I wanted to do in the future with my education (something I think more professors should do). I told him I was unsure but thought it wise to get some research experience under my belt. He then offered to take me under his wing and teach me how to do research in topological quantum computing. This one conversation spiraled into a three plus year-long research relationship that continued during my graduate studies and even after my defense.
Did you do undergraduate research? If so, what skills did it give you?
I did both undergraduate and graduate research in Dr. Matos-Abiague's group, where I carried out studies on topological superconductivity and topological quantum computing. During these years, I gained programming knowledge, public speaking experience and a general understanding of what it means to do science research. When I look back at my journey at WSU, I am always greatly appreciative of the confidence Dr. Matos-Abiague gave me during my time assisting with his research.
What was your favorite thing about the department?
My favorite thing about the department has to be the student culture. By this, I mean that almost every classmate I’ve had has been friendly, encouraging, helpful and open-minded to a good debate, not to mention incredibly smart (this is physics after all). Everyone genuinely wants everyone else to succeed and is willing to dedicate some time, effort and resources to make sure that happens. Through all the group study sessions my classmates and I organized during my undergraduate and graduate studies, I gained a deeper understanding of every course I took and gained new friendships. This culture, while talking to my peers, is what sets the Department of Physics and Astronomy at WSU apart from other departments and other universities.
What advice would you give to current students?
It took me a while to learn this but try to think of your experience at WSU as a collection of resources at your disposal. At the Department of Physics and Astronomy, you have professors, advisors and fellow students, all wanting your success and are willing to help you get there. All that is required from you is to be willing to put forth effort in accepting these resources and giving them in return when asked. Speak to all these people early and often in your education, with the foreknowledge that they have something to offer. Take every opportunity you can to experience new things, even if it takes you out of your comfort zone.