A Better Way of Explaining Physics:

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

A Better Way of Explaining Physics:

Dr. Roberto Ramos named 2018 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor


Kendra Redmond, Contributing Editor

The SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor Award is the most prestigious award given by SPS, bestowed annually on the basis of the leadership, student leadership development, support, and encouragement the advisor has provided to their chapter.

For his leadership and guidance of the SPS chapter at the University of the Sciences, and previously at Indiana Wesleyan and Drexel University, Dr. Roberto Ramos is the 2018 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor.

“There’s got to be a better way of explaining this.” Ramos’s love of physics extends beyond working hours. He is an amateur astrophotographer, a bargain hunter for research parts, and an enthusiastic traveler who finds physics everywhere. Here, he and his son enjoy a visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Photo courtesy of Roberto Ramos.

These words would echo in Roberto Ramos’s mind as he sat through physics lecture after lecture as an undergraduate. “I felt compelled by the need to make complicated ideas clearer, to restate things in ways that connect with the listener,” he explains. This compulsion led Ramos to a life of teaching and connecting with students—in the classroom, in the lab, and even on the streets of Pennsylvania in the annual Philadelphia Science Carnival.

Rather than thinking of students as passive audience members, like his professors did, Ramos sees students as his partners. He describes his philosophy this way: “I think of students as partners in probing the physics in our surroundings and in promoting physics as a field.”

His goal is not just to equip students to be good physicists, but also to be good citizens. “The idea is to raise a culture of physics majors not just skilled in laboratory or theoretical techniques, but also trained in applying for external grants to promote physics as a discipline and career,” he explains. As an SPS advisor, he has often used the SPS awards program to help students develop these skills and build confidence. “Students who submit proposals to SPS and who get funded are encouraged and empowered to think of themselves as scientists who can make a difference,” he explains.

In his three years as the SPS advisor at the University of the Sciences, his current institution, the chapter has received 11 national SPS awards. Many of the awards have been in support of outreach programs that engage groups that are traditionally underrepresented in physics, such as women and minorities. Similar efforts at each of his previous institutions, Drexel University and Indiana Wesleyan University, have left a legacy of SPS outreach efforts that remains today.

In addition to outreach, Ramos actively engages students in research. He has taken students to regional and national conferences, created forums for them to share their research on campus, and involved students in his own research in experimental low-temperature physics, superconductivity, and applied quantum mechanics.

“In my lab, undergrads routinely cool samples down to 2 degrees Kelvin and—on a good day—to sub-Kelvin temperatures to study their quantum properties,” he explains. “It’s a lab where classroom lessons in quantum mechanics and thermodynamics ‘come alive,’ and students learn skills in cryogenics, vacuum systems, fabrication, and low-noise transport measurements.”

Ramos has found a better way to explain physics than through stuffy lectures—by connecting with one student at a time, actively engaging them inside and outside of the classroom, and empowering them to make a difference. It’s not easy, though, and it requires a long game. Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re making a difference, he says. “Until that one day, years later, when you receive a handwritten card or an email out of nowhere thanking you for pushing them to be better scientists, and better versions of themselves. All because you saw what they could be and what they could do, before they even realized it themselves.” Ramos (second from left) poses with SPS officers and members from the University of the Sciences during the spring 2018 SPS Zone 3 meeting. Photo courtesy of Brad R. Conrad.

Editor’s note: You can read about one of Ramos’s outreach efforts in “A Summer Camp of Wonder” in the Fall 2017 issue of The SPS Observer. https://www.spsnational.org/the-sps-observer/fall/2017/summer-camp-wonder.

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics