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Alexi Arango (Physics Professor)

Name: Alexi Arango

Title: Assistant Professor

Department: Physics

Hometown: Daly City, CA

Pronouns: He/him

 

Mount Holyoke College, as many of you well know is a hub for inspirational professors, from jazz composers, to world renowned biochemists, to passionate poets. There is no shortage of top of the line professors, and students choose Mount Holyoke sometimes solely for professors’ previous experience and achievements in their respective fields. I have the pleasure of being in the classroom and lab with one of the most inspiring and innovative professors I’ve met at my time here. Professor Alexi Arango continues to surprise me with his enthusiasm for better of the community and the environment, and his unprecedented passion for his students in the classroom. Being a student of his, there is never a time where I was not looking forward to class. Professor Arango always invigorates his classes with consistent enthusiasm, curiosity, and support; breaking the glass ceiling for what it means to be a “normal” professor.  

 

Where is your hometown and what is it like?

I grew up in Daly City, which is a suburb just outside of San Francisco. It was one of the first suburban housing developments, so the houses are all almost exactly the same. A driveway and a tree, and it repeated for miles and miles up the hillside and down to the beach along the coast. It was an idyllic suburban situation. They used brightly colored houses during this time because they liked to think that each of them was unique, so the facade was different, but once when you went into your friend’s house you knew exactly where the bathroom was. I have many fond memories of playing sports in the neighborhood and riding BMX bikes around with my friends. There are many aspects I miss, but I like it here as well. It was initially difficult to move away from the West Coast. It took about 10 years, then I had constructed enough of a life that I enjoyed here then it even surpassed in my mind how it was in the West Coast. But, going home in the winter is especially nice. One year, it was a particularly awful winter here, and I went home and I went for a run on the beach behind my parent’s house and it was just open space, rolling hills, a clear day, and it seems too good to be true.

 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. For no other reason than I wanted to wear a lab coat when I grew up. I don’t wear them often, I wear them occasionally, but I never think of [fulfilling my childhood dream] that way.

 

When did you first decide you wanted to pursue physics in higher education?

It’s a funny story because I initially thought I wanted to be a chemistry major, because I really enjoyed chemistry in high school, I didn’t particularly like physics, and chemistry was fascinating to me. I got a physics professor as an advisor in my first year, and I met with her; her name was Patricia Burchat, and she later went on to become a pretty prominent professor at Stanford, though at the time she was at UC Santa Cruz. She was a dynamic, intelligent, fascinating woman, who was very easily able to convince me to drop the chemistry major and take physics classes right off the bat. I just started taking physics classes without even knowing what happened, and before I knew it I was halfway through the major. Like, ‘how did this happen?’ She was inspirational.

 

How did you become interested in climate change, and what inspired you to create your passive house?

Oh! That’s a good one. Well, I had been teaching renewable energy, and looking for literature to read about passive houses, greenhouses, or construction. I found these videos on YouTube where the architect that’s based in Maine takes you through the different aspects of it and I had these videos for homework and we watched them in class, and as I was teaching about heat pumps, and about living in without fossil fuels, it began to seem like something I could do. I just became really infatuated and excited about it and about living what I had been teaching, and I had done a lot of research about it and I had put a lot of thought into it to put it all together. On a whim, I called the architect who had done these videos, and I wasn’t expecting they would be willing to do a project in Massachusetts because they’re based in Maine, but they were willing to do it. That along with the fact that I just looked at the map of property prices and found the cheapest lot that I could find in the area, and had a real estate agent show it to me, and just immediately fell in love with it, and was compelled to buy it almost right away. So suddenly I had land and I had an architect and it came together.

 

What is your favourite part about teaching at Mount Holyoke?

One of the great aspects is I feel like every single one of my students in as interesting person. I’m constantly amazed by how it’s such a pleasure to be interacting with people who really want to learn and have fascinating things they want to do with their lives, and come with questions that make me think about things differently and come up with creative solutions to things we’re talking about and having interesting perspectives on things in the world. I don’t think anyone else on a daily basis continually interacting with a whole other set with really interesting people. That one aspect is huge. The other is that I feel like the classroom dynamic that the students construct themselves and naturally, the rapport students have in my classes make it makes it fun for me. Teaching is an escape, which is probably much different for students who are having their brains twisted around by new material, but for me it’s going into a different world and forgetting about all of my troubles. I am able to dive into the physics that we’re doing, but also, it’s a constant struggle to figure out how to convey the right information in the right way, so it’s almost like every class is an experiment, where I go into class and I have an idea about the last lecture and what worked and what didn’t work. Then next class I would go into class with something else I would try and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work, but it’s always exciting to see how people will react. Then students make it a lot of fun just themselves. It’s not just one thing.

 

Do you have a secret talent that not many people know of?

Well, I’ve taught myself how to scythe. It’s an old farm instrument that is used to chop hay and wheat. Previously, something that everyone in the community would have, the women, the children, the whole community, when it was harvest time, would go out into the field and chop the grass. That was lost pretty quickly once tractors were invented. I have a 5 acre plot where much of it is meadow, and much of it is under environmental restoration, because it is a habitat of an endangered turtle, I believe it’s called the wood turtle. So using mechanised equipment to cut the grass or harvest the hay is not permitted. Instead of letting it go wild, I proposed to the state of Massachusetts to use a scythe. Without animals or instruments, a meadow would just turn into shrubs pretty quickly. In fact, the property was all shrub and then I cleared it. As my form of exercise, I go into the back field and use the scythe, and it’s the most zen meditative amazing form of exercise ever. It requires an unbelievable amount of concentration, but it’s a cutting, like slicing vegetables, you have to be concentrating on what you’re doing, and you have to push yourself to get the widest circle as possible, and then you can go a lot faster. Using balance and leverage and momentum is more important than strength, and you need the right amount of speed. It takes a lot of concentration, but it’s also taxing on your body, but a great ab torso strengthening exercise, and you feel so accomplished. At the same time you get to know all of the little creatures. You wouldn’t even know it, but there are birds nest, and field mice, when I pass the blade over them, they scream. If the blade is not directly over them they’re quiet. You can hear the squeaking, and avoid their nest and move on. It puts you in touch with all the things that are living in the field. You realise, while the neighbors lawn is totally uniform and easy to maintain and green, it is also an ecological desert, because there aren’t any mice or birds nests living in it. Then you step into my yard, and it looks all messy, but there are things burrowing in the ground, and bird life, and it’s really vibrant, and using the scythe makes it possible to not kill the little creatures that live in the grass. It’s this great way of meditating and exercise and getting to know your environment and being outside.

 

How has working at a women’s college changed you?

I initially came here thinking that it would be kind of weird. I feel like I probably had, at the same time, this notion in my own experience: I was mentored by a woman physicist, and I had influential women in my life, so I automatically had this propensity to thinking “Oh yeah, women are physicists and they’re great physicists, and it’s a great environment to be working with women scientists in general.” Then, I also thought there would be this exclusionary aspect to it, like an all-boys club, but it’s an all-women’s club and is that going to be weird? I have to admit that on the onset, it felt like an antique or archaic thing to be doing, but then being in the classroom and teaching, and seeing the dynamic amongst students and how supportive they are with each other [changed my mind]. The summer before I started teaching, I did a lot of reading on pedagogy, and I use all of these new teaching techniques, that have been implemented in physics community. So many of them are designed to counteract the natural sexism that people have, and dismissal that women can do science. So, a lot of the forming group work and concept questions is explicitly trying to level the playing field, and counteract the the idea that many men won’t listen to a woman when it comes to a scientific explanation. Then I realised that in this setting, everyone is so open with throwing things out there to the class, and in groups people are having amazing discussion and respecting and supporting each other. The learning environment is so much more conducive to actually learning than in my own experiences. Then, on top of that, having the opportunity to travel around and give the same lectures and co-education colleges, and to experience the different dynamic and how the energy is much less supportive and enthusiastic and willing to participate and interested in diving into what we’re talking about. That illustrated to me that there is something really special and unique to either the Mount Holyoke classroom in particular, or a women’s college classroom in general. Then I felt really lucky to be in this position. I really think that the ability and pace and depth of learning and to retain information, and the quality of the learning environment is so much better than what it is than in other places.

 

If you had one piece of advice for prospective physics majors, what would it be?

I think a lot of people are fascinated by science, but become convinced by either the messaging is pervasive in our media culture, in movies and television shows. That popular women don’t do science. I think there is a lot of insidious messaging that is coming from high school and middle school teachers, that there is an assumption that great scientists don’t happen to be women, whether it’s subconscious or not. On top of that, I think there’s this culture in physics where portraying physics for being exclusionary and reserved for the smartest people, or the craziest ones who are lost in their thoughts about the universe. In fact, I really feel like everyone on the planet can benefit from taking physics, and learning about the way the world works, and thinking through step by step the logic of how we have come to understand the aspects of what makes up our lives. It’s not even to know the amazing coincidence of how we can generate electricity or how the planets spin around themselves, but also just have the capability to deconstruct things that happen in your daily life, and have a strategy for saying, “I’m confronted with something I don’t understand right now.” How can I break that down into small chucks, how can I find tricks that can capture the essential aspect of what’s going on, but not over complicate the idea? Even in your personal life, I don’t understand how people make basic decisions without having the problems-solving skills we build in class. It’s not mysterious, it’s not even hard when you really look at it fully. Physics is actually about breaking things down so that they’re easy. There’s this huge rouge that is sometimes perpetuated by the physics community that we’re doing these hard things and it’s rocket science, and you have to be one in a million to understand rocket science. No! Rocket science is just plugging and chugging equations, it’s not difficult. You take it one step at a time, and it really is something that everyone can benefit from. It might be in different ways, but if you have that interest to thinking a little bit deeper than what some people are comfortable with, and wanting to know how things work a little bit deeper, I think physics is power as a starting point to do anything that you might be interested in.

 

 

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My name is Victoria and I am a singer/songwriter and physics enthusiast from Pleasantville, NY. I am a first year currently studying Music and Physics at Mount Holyoke College. I run for the Cross Country and Track team, and I am a big proponent of Halloween, Harry Potter, music, tea, and art.
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