"As a woman majoring in physics, I get the most fascinating reactions from people."

Reprinted from Physics Today, American Institute of Physics, College Park, Md., September 2014.

Tracy Paltoo, Physics Dept

Tracy Paltoo, a sophomore in physics major, conducts research with Assistant Professor Matthew Wright, Ph.D.

Physics produces in me an adrenaline rush that drives me to question everything in the physical universe. However, it simultaneously creates a calm interior space where I can seek and find logical explanations to my every question.

I attended Grover Cleveland High School in Queens, New York. In my junior year, I participated in an event called Science Olympiad. Science Olympiad is a team competition in which more than 30 other high schools compete in scientific events, including biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering.

For my event I had to create a boomilever, a cantilevered structure similar to a crane. My friend, another female student, was my only teammate and together we had to build the boomilever. We encountered many mishaps, such as the wood warping due to heat, ineffective glue that would not hold the wood together, and grainy palms from our seemingly endless sanding. But with every mistake we learned what not to do for the next creation. It was in high school that I learned that for every question in physics, there can be a multitude of solutions.

My partner and I constructed a boomilever that weighed 130 g and could hold 5 kg. In developing the structure, we incorporated physics and bridge-building skills and medaled fourth place with our design. We were commended by our school officials and the local district member for being successful female students in a science career track. We were a rarity for the student body in our school district.

Repeatedly building, creating, and destroying presented me with challenges and made me wonder more about physics. I knew from my experience in Science Olympiad that I wanted to explore the greater depth and challenge of physics in college.

Adelphi University

I knew I wanted to attend Adelphi University when I first visited its campus in Garden City, Long Island, that hazy spring day. The campus was surrounded with blooming flowers and the smell of wet grass was in the air. An hour away from my family home, the campus was far enough, but not too far away.

Even more important than the location and serenity of the campus, Adelphi University offers an amazing five-year program. The program allows undergraduates interested in physics and engineering to attain a degree in physics at Adelphi University in three years and then a graduate degree in engineering from Columbia University in two. It sounded thrilling to thrive on a rigorous academic experience and interact with a diverse pool of physics students at Adelphi, and then go on to obtain a higher degree at an internationally recognized institution.

Studying physics at Adelphi University is a special experience. Compared to my high school, there is a high profile for physics at Adelphi University, and this comprehensiveness was welcome to a first-year like myself. In high school, my learning experience was limited to strict memorization of formulas rather than the understanding of concepts and theories to arrive at accurate conclusions.

Tackling physics problems at Adelphi has been exponentially more fulfilling than getting the right answer on a test in high school. Adelphi has taught me how to apply in-class physics lectures to real-life situations. During a lecture on optics, I learned about how lenses reflect, refract, and magnify. Later, in a summer research class, my lab partners and I encountered a problem in which we needed to observe a beam that was too small to see. We were able to solve our problem by constructing a lens system using our knowledge from lecture to magnify the beam and make it more visible.

Adelphi holds its students accountable for the standard of their work, which forces me to work hard. I learn not only about various physics concepts and theories, but also about how to be a successful, independent thinker. For me, thermodynamics was especially challenging. As a prospective civil engineer, I also find it rewarding. I learned about thermal expansion, particularly in bridges, and how steel bridges can experience changes in length due to temperature. Challenging and rewarding subjects give me the determination to gain an advanced background in physics.

As a woman majoring in physics, I get the most fascinating reactions from people. Adults commend and encourage me for taking on such a complex subject. For instance, I am a tutor at America Reads, where I work with elementary school students and their teachers. Recently, [when] an assistant teacher at the elementary school I tutor in found out I was a physics major, she began to hold me to a higher work standard, and to ask me a variety of general-subject questions. She assumed that I have a breadth of knowledge because I am a physics major. From my peers I usually get a sarcastic “how fun” or “wow, good luck!”

Ultimately, I hope to become a civil engineer. My plan as a physics major is to gain knowledge on the rudimentary principles behind engineering and attain the perspective of a physicist so that, as a civil engineer, I can provide thoughtful solutions to challenges around the world. In addition, I hope that the physics degree will help me bring innovation to my field.

My inspiration to further my knowledge of physics comes from my father, a construction worker. He did not have the opportunity to attend high school, and he emigrated from Trinidad to New York City when he was 20 years old. He didn’t go to school to become a carpenter, but learned through practice and perseverance. His determination motivates me to continue to build on the foundation that his sacrifices built for my family and me.

When I was younger I remember going to work with my dad and looking up at the skyscrapers that disappeared into the sky and down at landscapes that took my breath away. He has helped to create some of the tallest buildings in Manhattan, but to me, his crowning achievement is that he now owns his own business. Following my father, I want to take pride in knowing that I helped build a monument to last for years and someday inspire another individual—man or woman—to embark on their own journey of creation.

This piece is from AU VU, Spring 2015 issue.

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