Just Getting Started: Dan Carson

 

Name: Dan Carson

Position: Professor

Program: Physics

 Over the summer, I began a series of interviews with professors at UC Irvine. The first interview was with Dan Carson. He taught several quarters of Physics 2 as a graduate student. This year he finished his Ph.D. in physics, and he shared with us his experience at UC Irvine. Although his time as a graduate student at UC Irvine has come to an end, he is ready to begin his career as a professor. I sat down for an interview to understand his journey thus far, and the path he plans to pave for himself in the coming years.

Explain your journey to UC Irvine, and what inspired you to pursue a Ph.D. in physics?

In my childhood, I had really strong interest in science and all things quantitative. I was obsessed with baseball stats, and instead of reading books with a plot or story, I would just memorize baseball stats. In high school, I had a very inspiring physics teacher who pushed me in that direction, and when it was time to apply to college, I knew what major I wanted. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. During college I made a lot of money tutoring others students in their introductory physics courses so that was part of what sparked my interest in teaching.

Then it was time to apply for graduate school, I knew I wanted to get an advanced degree in physics, it was just a matter of where I wanted to live for the next five to six years. That factored into where, and of course the weather out here is beautiful.

While I was here, I started off as a TA, and I really enjoyed that, and it really solidified my interest in teaching. At the same time, I started working on my research project. And toward the end of my time here, I was given two really great opportunities to actually instruct a course and carry out lectures which I did for three quarters for Physics 2. I also taught Physics 3A, and 3LC. As I am wrapping up my work at UCI, I have teaching positions lined up at Chaffey College and Irvine Valley College where I will be teaching part time.

Do you have any favorite memories at UCI?

A lot of the friends I made in the physics department are very “outdoorsy” people, so I have been dragged along many camping trips during my time here. One of the camping trips that I could never forget anytime soon was a trip to San Jacinto, a peak my friends and I wanted to climb. We had the really brilliant idea of doing it on no sleep because we left campus around midnight on a Friday. We got to the parking area around 2:00 a.m. Then we had to hike to the camping grounds for another two hours, so we got there around 4:00 a.m. After waking up at 6:00 a.m., we decided to start the trip up the mountain, and just standing on top of that mountain and taking in that view was one of the most awe inspiring things I have ever seen.

What do you do for fun outside of physics?

I’m big into running, and Southern California is a beautiful place for that. I try to sign up for races whenever possible. I have done a few half marathons, and I am aspiring to do a full marathon. Other than that I am very interested in music. I collect records,and also play music myself. I am a guitarist and base player, and I just enjoy seeing live music whenever possible.

Going back to physics, now that you have your PhD, where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully, in five years I will have some job security with a tenure track teaching position at one of the great community colleges in California. That’s the goal, and I have been working my way towards that goal for the past couple of years now.

Have you always wanted to teach at community college or is that something new/developed over time?

That wasn’t always 100% clear. I always knew that teaching would be really fun. But, the community college environment was best for me because during my time here, I found that was what I wanted to focus on, not try to find some balance between teaching and research.

What sparked your motivation for behind teaching?

This is going to be a cliché answer, but if you love to do something it is what you pursue. First and foremost, it is really enjoyable and fun, especially in one on one scenarios, to see a concept click in a student’s mind. Seeing them really grasp something for the first time is really rewarding. And just the knowledge that you made some sort of positive impact is great too. Honestly, it’s mostly the selfish reason of just enjoying what you teach.

What was your research based on at UCI?

I studied the centers of galaxies. The centers of galaxies are home to a lot of distinct and interesting phenomena. You have things like supermassive black holes, sometimes those supermassive active black holes are gobbling up matter and producing very powerful radiation, known as quasars. Sometimes you can dense clusters of stars, and that is what my research focuses on. And so I study objects called nuclear star clusters. Nuclear in a sense that they exist at the nucleus of a galaxy and star clusters because they are just a dense clusters of stars. Specifically, I am investigating their structural properties and the properties of their stellar populations. So we are basically interested in a couple questions: “What are the shapes and sizes of these objects? And what are their formation histories?  Also, what can we infer about that based on observational data?” The data I work with is mostly from the Hubble space telescope.

What were some of the unexpected hurdles you faced in your six years at UCI?

Some of the challenges are just overcoming what is often referred to as the imposter syndrome. When you are starting off in your field and you are surrounded by people who know more than you do you sort of feel out of place. The whole process that you go through in grad school is a transition from feeling like a newcomer to someone who is an expert in the field. There are times in grad school when you feel like you are there, and there are times when you don’t feel like you are there and that is what we call the imposter syndrome. And everyone I’ve talked to pretty much has experience that. That is one of the big challenges overcoming that involves a leap of faith and not being afraid of asking what you might think is a stupid question.

How did your perception of life change as you went deeper into physics? Did you feel any of your views change?

One thing you tend to do when you study physics is that you think the world is completely comprehensible. You have a set of laws that explain everything at a basic level, but the higher level stuff such as human behavior, ultimately boils down to the physical laws. I think a lot of physicists tend to have this bias that everything at bottom is just physics. But, I don’t think that is a useful way to look at the world. There are levels of analysis that are useful for studying a given phenomenon. Physics is not the level of analysis you want to use for every phenomena out there.

For example, when talking about something like sociology or looking at the way millions of people interact with each other. It’s not useful to take that system and put the microscope on it to the point where you are talking about the individual particles that make up that system. I would say that it is a mistake to think that once you understand physics you understand everything. Even if everything is physics at bottom, that’s just not the level of analysis you want to apply to everything. So I think physicists, some of us would be well advised to not think that we know everything just because everything is physics at bottom.

 

Fun Questions:

How would you prefer to see the world in words or numbers?

I’d have to say numbers because a description in terms of numbers is going to be more precise than a description in words.

If you could witness an event past present or future what would it be?

Probably the first moon landing.

What would you name the autobiography of your life?

I don’t think my life is worthy of an autobiography, but it would be "A Work in Progress.”

What advice would you give a college student?

My advice is there are going to be some very difficult, painful moments as you study. As you bang your head against the wall trying to understand something in one of your difficult classes, just push through that to whatever extent as possible. In hind sight, it is easy to catastrophize situations like that. And I think looking back at times I really struggled academically, I was always glad that I didn’t just give up, and I pushed through. Another cliché, but don’t give up.