Regaining Momentum

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

Regaining Momentum


Elizabeth (Lisa) Pham, SPS Member, California State University, Chico

Lisa Pham sharing her story during the California State University, Chico commencement in May 2017. Photo courtesy of Jason Haley, Chico State photographer.

In 2017, Lisa Pham received the Aysen Tunca Memorial Scholarship from SPS, in addition to many honors from California State University, Chico (Chico State).

I was born to Vietnamese boat refugees. My parents escaped their war-torn home as unaccompanied teenagers leaving behind everything they knew. Both of my parents strongly encouraged me and my five siblings to pursue higher education as they had. Straight out of high school, I started my studies at Scripps College for Women.

In 2013, I took a leave of absence and moved to Chico, California. I had been taking a full load of science and math classes while working three part-time jobs to pay for school. Over time it became clear that my schedule was unsustainable. After much deliberation, I chose to get a job and focus on my health and well-being.

After leaving school, I was very insecure in my abilities as a physicist and as a student. I felt like I had failed my family and myself. However, at each job I held, my bosses and colleagues urged me to return to school. With their support and encouragement, I transferred my credits to Chico State and shakily returned to the classroom in the fall of 2015. I was terrified of failing yet again—or even worse, realizing that I was inherently flawed.

From my first day at Chico State, SPS made me feel like part of the community. I quickly joined the students and faculty members who are often in the department late into the night and on weekends, helping each other through problem sets or sharing pizza. The club truly feels like a family, looking out for one another and accepting everyone. As one semester became two, I found myself regaining momentum.

Last spring, I became president of our SPS chapter. I received a grant to spend a summer conducting biophysics research and presented at PhysCon. In May, I was chosen to share my story with 10,000 people at commencement. I have come to realize that with the right circumstances and resources, I am finally living up to my full potential. In December, I will graduate with my bachelor’s in physics—something that I once deemed impossible.

My bosses, professors, and classmates have supported me so much; I am now passionate about doing the same for others. As SPS president, I established a peer mentorship program where students can discuss any questions or concerns that come up, on classes, life balance, sexuality, mental health, etc. I regularly have coffee with students to find out about their concerns and share my own personal experiences. After graduating, I hope to become a technical manager and offer similar support to my coworkers and local students.

As part of these efforts, I strongly promote work-life balance. Really taking care of yourself—eating well, moving around, getting enough sleep—is not often prioritized by busy students. Yet, I have learned that when I prioritize my health, I can work more efficiently and effectively. Small steps towards a healthier, more balanced lifestyle can make a big difference!

For more information on SPS scholarships and the 2017 awardees, see pg. 8 and visit

 Pham presenting her research poster at PhysCon 2016. Photo courtesy of Chico State SPS.

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics