Physics Spotlight

December 2015
Photo of Professor Christian Santangelo

Christian Santangelo

Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara (2004)

We have chosen Professor Santangelo to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his interesting research in Origami and dedication to the department. Professor Santangelo specializes in Condensed Matter Theory. Please also visit Professor Santangelo’s website. Also, check out this new Physics World article highlighting Professor Santangelo’s work: Flat-pack Physics

What is your professional background? What did you major in and where? Where did you go to graduate school and for what? How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

I was a physics major at Cornell University, where I got a B.A. (not a B.S.). I went to graduate school at the University of California at Santa Barbara where I studied physics. I did not start as the best physics student (I was a B student and an advisor once told me “Well, you won’t get into the best graduate school…” though he claims to not remember this.).  However, I worked hard to get my grades up and, ultimately, took and did well in graduate courses while still at Cornell.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to? What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?

At some point, it was clear that I couldn’t not go to graduate school. I started reading papers on my own (maybe not understanding them, though). I didn’t have a good way to choose a graduate school; I wanted to be a string theorist and, at the time, there were 3 places that were known to be quite good for string theory and Santa Barbara was one of them. In the end, I didn’t even like string theory but was lucky enough to be at a school with several strong research specialties. My advice for students is: (1) there is a strong unity between many seemingly different fields of physics and it is not useful to limit yourself too early, (2) ask for advice about where to apply for graduate school from your professors. The answers will depend on your interests, and (3) do research while an undergraduate.

What is your advice for a student who wants to go to industry?

While physics is good training for many industries, going to “industry” is not an escape path to avoid graduate school. Do research while an undergraduate.

Briefly explain your research:

Can we design new materials, from pure thought, by varying the arrangement of the structural elements the material is made of?

What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?

Probably Physics 422: Electricity and Magnetism, not because of the subject but because of the mathematical techniques used in that class.

Do you take undergraduates in your research group? What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

Yes, I have had several. Sometimes they do computational work, sometimes they work on some experiments in a collaborator’s lab. I have some papers with undergraduates and am soon to have more, but undergrads are fairly busy people.

What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level?

Definitely any of the classes at the 400 level. I’ve especially enjoyed Physics 422 (Electricity and Magnetism) though.

What do you do outside of physics? Do you have a hobby?

I raise my kids. I guess that’s not a hobby but it sure eats up a lot of time that I used to spend on hobbies. I also play guitar and started taking Aikido.

Is there anything else you would like us to know or advice you would like to give to students interested in UMass Physics?

Like most things worth doing, physics is hard. It is a skill not a body of knowledge. If you work hard and practice consistently, it really does change the way you see the world and what you can do in it.