We asked physics professor Jennifer Steele a few questions to get to know her better
by Susie P. Gonzalez
Let’s just settle the tough question at the beginning. Since we all live in the universe, we already have some instinctive knowledge about physics, proving that it’s not a difficult subject. At least, that’s the belief of Trinity University physics professor Jennifer Steele, who harbors a secret desire to run for public office. If she can convince the rest of us that physics isn’t hard, she deserves our votes.
What do you like best about teaching Trinity students?
Most of my colleagues would say it is a joy to teach Trinity students because of how bright, creative, and motivated they are, and I agree wholeheartedly! I would add to that how much I appreciate my students bringing their other classes into their physics classes. A very famous artifact in my field is something called the Lycurgus Cup, and at least one or two students will know the legend behind King Lycurgus and Ambrosia.The cup is an example of a Roman cage cup, and shows Lycurgus being dragged into the underworld. These little crossovers are why I choose to teach at a liberal arts college!
How do you motivate your students?
I think most students think upper division physics courses operate on a “the beatings will continue until morale improves” basis. Members of my board game group embrace the idea of “personal victory conditions” - the idea that even if you are not winning the overall game, what can you achieve that will leave you satisfied enough to come back and try again. I try to break complicated problems down. Little victories along the way can be a boost when working on a multiple page physics problem. The biggest mistake I see students making is that when they approach a complicated physics problem, they give up because they can't envision the entire solution before they even start.
How did you get involved in your field of study?
When I was little, my parents gave me a microscope, and I remember being so fascinated looking at the underlying structure of insects and plants.This interest in how structure relates to function is central to nanotechnology. In nanotechnology, we design structures nanometers in size that will have the desired properties for a particular application. It is also an interdisciplinary field, and I found that I enjoy working with biologists, chemists, engineers, and others. We all bring unique perspectives from our home discipline to the table, which facilitates finding the best solution.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching? Least favorite? Why?
I love it when I can see students “get it” - particularly students who push through difficult material. My least favorite aspect of teaching is motivating students during the last few weeks of a semester - we are all tired!
Is physics as hard as people think it is?
Oh, goodness no! Physics, along with mathematics, has a bad reputation of being something you are either good at or not. But like most skills, with practice everyone can become good enough at physics to pass at least the lower division courses. Not everyone can be a Marie Curie or Mildred Dresselhaus, but everyone can achieve a basic understanding of how our universe works. After all, you have lived in our universe your entire life, so you probably have some good instincts of how it works already. Physics is a wonderful way of bringing your understanding to a deeper level.
Who inspires you and why?
I am blown away by my colleagues everyday. The faculty at Trinity is a never ending source of inspiration in all areas of teaching, scholarship, and service as well as being talented musicians, writers, trivia players, gamers, and dancers.
What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Why?
I have a secret ambition to run for public office. Coming from a science background, I enjoy coming up with creative solutions to problems, even ones as “boring” as transportation, health care, and fair housing.
What is your favorite sound? Least favorite?
My favorite sound is when I can get students to laugh at my corny jokes. Least favorite is leaf blowers.
What are your favorite hobbies?
I started swing dancing in graduate school in the ‘90s, and although I don't do it as much as I used to, I still very much enjoy the music and dancing. Recently I've taking up kick boxing, which has a surprising amount of overlapping skills with dancing. Dr. Dennis Ugolini in my department encouraged me to try it, and I've found it is a very tiring and often cathartic workout.
Where would you like to retire?
My parents recently moved to South Carolina, and when I visit we often hop the border to North Carolina. North Carolina is very beautiful, and has a lot of good food, craft beer, music, and hiking trails. Plus, it's not as hot as Texas!