Physics Spotlight

June 2020
Physics Spotlight

Shubha Tewari

Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles (1993)

The Physics Department has chosen Professor Shubha Tewari to participate in this month’s Physics Spotlight! Her research interests center around soft condensed matter, more specifically, granular materials. As a Senior Lecturer, Shubha is involved in teaching a wide variety of Physics courses including the Integrated Concentration in Sciences (iCons) program. She has also been involved with the planning and coordination of the APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP) that was last held here at UMass and included over 250 young women physicists. More recently, Shubha has been newly appointed as director of the STEM Education Institute as well. The program fosters partnerships between University researchers and the K-12 community. To find out more about Shubha, please see her Q&A below!

 What is your professional background?  What did you major in and where?  How does your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

I did the equivalent of a 3-year Bachelor’s degree at a small school in Pondicherry, India, which was unusual for an Indian college in that it allowed me to do physics, math and computer science while also doing courses in French, Sanskrit and English literature. This gave me an appreciation of the value of a broad-based education, not one focused exclusively on STEM subjects. I try to bring that same approach to my teaching and advising/mentoring responsibilities. After my Bachelors, I did a 2-year Masters degree in Physics at a technical school, the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India. I found myself in a completely different, intense environment in which exams and grades were far more important, but also one in which I began to study Physics more intensively, and to think about going onto graduate school.

Where did you attend 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?

I first joined graduate school at Stony Brook University in NY. My first summer, I worked with a condensed matter theorist. When he decided to move to UCLA, I moved with him, and received my Ph.D. from UCLA. When I applied to grad schools from India, there was not much information available about the program other than word of mouth from seniors and what you could look up in published Physics department snapshots that I found at the nearest US embassy. Now, most information seeking can be done on the internet, and I urge students interested in applying to graduate school to read about faculty research at the school they are interested in, see how active the faculty are, and email faculty to see if they are taking on students and to express interest in their research.

What attracted you to your current position?

I have had a somewhat unusual path to my current position. I first moved to Amherst with a two month old baby when my husband got hired at UMass. After a year, I began doing part-time teaching - one course at UMass (graduate Stat Mech), one at Smith and at Mt Holyoke. After spending the next 7 years in a visiting position at Mt Holyoke, I moved to a tenure-track position at Western New England University in Springfield. Once tenured, I took the opportunity to explore a long-held dream of returning to work in India. Along with my husband and our two children, I spent a year and a half at a research institute in India, TIFR Hyderabad, and had a wonderful time there. On our return to the US, I made the move to UMass, joining the Physics Department here as a Lecturer in January 2015. What attracted me to this position was that it held out the potential of teaching a variety of Physics courses, as well as in the Integrated Concentration in Sciences (iCons) program. At the same time, being at a top research university with an excellent soft condensed matter research group has been very exciting, and has allowed me to continue doing research on the physics of granular materials. In addition to the classes I teach, I have had the privilege of advising and mentoring undergraduate physics majors, and have been able to guide two honors theses.

What would your advice be for someone who was thinking about a career in teaching?

I think the most important thing is to try it out, first to see if you enjoy it, and then to decide what type of teaching you enjoy the most. As an undergraduate, sign up to be a teaching assistant for a course. As a graduate teaching assistant, try to get some variety in the courses you assist in. If you don’t have the opportunity to teach, engage in outreach activities. In all of this, the most important lesson is learning how to communicate, which in turn requires knowing your audience, be it middle school students or faculty at a research seminar.

What undergraduate course do you consider your favorite?

That is a tough question to answer. Long ago, when I was a graduate student at UCLA, I had the opportunity to hear Denzel Washington speak, and when asked by a student what his favorite role was, he responded that it was whatever he was working on now. So I’d like to quote Denzel and say it is whatever class I’m currently teaching. If pressed, I would say I really enjoy courses in the Physics majors sequence, where I currently teach Computational Physics and Solid State Physics, though I also love teaching the Physics of Music, a gen-ed.

How was your experience heading the APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP) at UMass?

This was certainly one of the most enjoyable and most challenging things I have done, and I could not have done it without plenty of help –from Irene Dujovne, my co-chair, our staff support, Brittany Bonenfant, faculty colleagues from UMass, and Smith, Mt Holyoke, and Amherst Colleges, and all the grad and undergrad students who pitched in to help, and guidance from the National Organizing Committee. And all the planning paid off – we had an exciting conference in more ways than one – each of our featured speakers was tremendously inspiring in her own way, we had excellent workshop leaders and panellists, and a well-attended Networking Fair. The unexpected wrench in the works was the season’s largest snowstorm which forced cancellation of an entire day of programming, but somehow, it all came together, and the attendees had a great time.

What was your favorite part about CUWIP?

The most inspiring thing for me was to look out into a crowded ballroom of 250 young women physicists.

What are your thoughts on diversity in a male-dominated field like Physics?

One of the striking statistics about our field is that the relative participation of women in Physics drops from parity, about 50% in high school/AP Physics classes, to 20% entering college, and stays roughly at that level for students leaving college, entering grad school, and beyond. There is still a lot to be done to make the field more diverse – not just in terms of representation, but in terms of making everyone feel they belong. This means giving each individual the support they need to succeed, whatever their path may turn out to be. We have to do better as a community to ensure that.

Now that you've taken over as director of the STEM Education Institute here at UMass, what are your future plans?

The STEM Ed Institute has a long history of fostering partnerships between University researchers and the K-12 community. We provide professional development opportunities for K-12 educators and seminars for those interested in educational pedagogy. I hope to continue to sustain these connections and forge new ones. We will continue to offer professional development opportunities for teachers, but also aim to establish connections between different groups. We seek to connect school teachers with current University students who aspire to become teachers, graduate students and faculty with teachers and high school students who wish to engage in research themselves. Overall, we strive to provide opportunities for outreach to school children of all ages, thus building pathways for new generations of school children to become informed citizens and scientists.

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

I love going on hikes with my family, and my dog really enjoys living adjacent to the Robert Frost trail. I enjoy reading and listening to music, and love to dance – I used to go to drop-in West African dance sessions in the Valley, but now mainly do dance exercise such as Zumba.