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Stanford's Patricia Burchat merges engineering and physics to create new major

AAAS Fellow Patricia Burchat wants to ensure every major is accessible to first-generation Standford students no matter their preparation. (Photo: Laura Petersen)

If there is one thing Stanford University professor Patricia Burchat loves more than physics, it's teaching physics.

In high school, the subject came naturally and she often found herself imagining how she would explain scientific or math concepts to her classmates. "I was always thinking, 'I think they would understand it if it was explained this way,'\ she said.

Burchat got her chance one day when her physics teacher asked her to fill in for him. Even when the teacher returned, he sat at the back of the room and let her finish the lesson. 

Since then, she has taught hundreds of college students calculus-based mechanics. A third of Stanford undergraduates must take the introductory physics class for a variety of technical degrees. 

On the first day of class, Burchat tells her students she has two goals: that they are well-prepared for the next class in the sequence, and that they walk away with a positive attitude towards physics. She knows most people don't share her passion for the subject, often because of poor teaching. 

"One bad experience ruins it for life," the AAAS fellow said. 

To hook her students, she connects the subject to real life, even drawing lessons from sports in the Winter Olympics, such as curling, the snowboard half-pipe and bobsled.

Despite her affinity for teaching physics, Burchat didn't consider it a career option at first.

"Growing up in this little town, I certainly didn't know what a physicist would do," said Burchat, who is from Ontario, Canada. "I really didn't know what an engineer would do either, but you somehow get this impression you are going to get a job."

She headed to the University of Toronto, where she majored in applied science and engineering. While working with researchers and postdocs at a nuclear physics laboratory for a summer, she discovered her love of research and from then on, a physics Ph.D. was "the obvious thing to do."

After completing her Ph.D. at Stanford, Burchat taught at U.C. Santa Cruz for six years before returning to Stanford, where she served as chair of the physics department from 2007 to 2010.

It's a remarkable achievement for anyone, but all the more inspiring because Burchat is a first-generation high school graduate.

Her mother had a 7th grade education and raised nine children. Her father had a 9th grade education, but was very technical and loved building bush airplanes, she said. He was the plant engineer for the local hospital, fixing anything that broke, even the X-ray machine. 

"He was Mr. Fix It," Burchat recalled. "If he didn't know, [the hospital] knew they really needed to bring in someone from Ottawa.\" 

Her background influences how she views Stanford's programs for first-generation college students, which make up about 15 percent of the student body. She wants to ensure every major is accessible to them no matter their preparation.

That's why she implemented a diagnostic test for calculus-based physics to identify students who need extra help, so they don't wipe out and then give up on a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degree. She led efforts to establish a 1-unit companion course for those students, and will be teaching it herself next year. 

Burchat also worked with the engineering department to design a new major—engineering physics—after observing that many first-generation students come to Stanford with an interest in physics, but major in engineering instead, because of their parents' concerns about job stability.

Engineering physics allows students to take all the classes they would need to pursue a physics Ph.D., as well as many engineering-design classes. It's a good fit for students who want to advance the field of engineering—such as designing the next generation of quantum computers or solar cells—and who need to understand "first principles" of physics.  

"They can either use physics to advance 21st century engineering or they can engineer systems to tackle 21st century physics questions—like what is dark matter and what is dark energy?" Burchat said.

Dark energy is Burchat's main research focus right now. After spending much of her career smashing particles in accelerators, she had turned her attention skyward to better understand what is causing the universe to expand at an ever-accelerating rate. 

"Whether one is talking about elementary particles or dark matter and dark energy, the questions are the same," she said. "What is the universe made of? And what are the laws of physics that govern that?"

Burchat is a member of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) collaboration and chairs the Executive Board for the LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration. Scheduled to see first light in 2019, the telescope will survey the entire, visible night sky every three nights, and repeat that process for 10 years, creating an unprecedented data set in size, sensitivity and standardization.

"I like collaborations where your work is not just to lead to this one paper, but can have broader influence and effect," she said. "In a way, LSST is a census of the universe for humanity."

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AAAS Fellow Patricia Burchat wants to ensure every major is accessible to first-generation Standford students no matter their preparation. (Photo: Laura Petersen)
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