The Art and Science of Teaching

Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Professor of Physics Mirjam Cvetic makes science appealing to students of all interests and skill levels.
September 27, 2012
Years ago in Slovenia, Mirjam Cvetic, the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Professor of Physics, became enamored with the competitive side of physics and its connections to nature. Despite being a somewhat unorthodox choice for a woman, the encouragement she received from her electrical engineer father was enough solidify her career path.

Now, Cvetic explores problems of elementary particle physics, but when not heavily involved with her research, she dedicates her time to becoming the best professor possible—and inspiring more young women to enter the field. As a 2012 recipient of the School’s Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award and the University-wide Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, Cvetic has cultivated a curriculum that appeals to students of all skill and interest levels.

Q:  What drew you to physics?

MC:  It was actually excitement with the learning and competition that drew me into math and physics in gymnasium (high school). Physics prevailed over math because of its ideas of connection to science, to nature. It isn’t abstract. 

Q:  Was it unusual for a woman to study physics?

MC:  In my case, my father was an electrical engineer, so there was certainly encouragement.  But in theoretical physics, I think the percentage of women is still unusually low. I’m trying to improve that by being a mentor and encouraging female students to pursue research. 

Q:  What do you try to achieve teaching your undergraduate students?

MC:  Undergraduate teaching, to some extent, presents a challenge both for students and faculty.  For students, most of them, they have to take science courses as a requirement for their majors.  And for faculty, those are relatively basic core courses that don’t require as much intellectual challenge as graduate courses do.

So with this, I focus on trying to bring to my teaching things that excite me about my specific field, this genuine excitement about physics, what drew me into physics, and project that in my classes. And this seems to be a very powerful core connection with students because that’s something I can give that they would not find in regular college books. It’s a two-way road.  They respond, and I’m excited about teaching them the subject. 

In theoretical physics, I think the percentage of women is still unusually low. I’m trying to improve that by being a mentor and encouraging female students to pursue research. 

Q:  When you won the Lindback Award, one of your colleagues said that you were determined to create the perfect course in introductory physics, down to details like how you drew diagrams.

MC:  I set out to very carefully prepare how I teach them about this relatively difficult subject.  I focus on a style where I’m reducing physics to a few special concepts and really demonstrate these concepts on very nontrivial examples. So I don’t try to clutter the lectures with a lot of different facts, but develop concepts and advanced techniques on how we approach solving problems.

Q:  How do you keep refining your approach? 

MC:  I believe that Penn students are really smart, driven, ambitious—and capable, which is the main thing I use. Even though it may not be the subject they will pursue in life, I can really challenge them and excite them about this particular subject, and they respond.  So I’m continually trying to challenge them to higher and higher levels, because this experience I have in my field can be useful when they apply it to other aspects of their professional life.

Q:  How do you encourage women to pursue physics?

MC:  In physics there is a strong effort at all levels to encourage women, first of all, to major in physics. That was in part the reason I took on the responsibility to be Associate Chair for Undergraduate Affairs last September. That was one of the things I really would like to pursue more proactively by recruiting and encouraging, in general students, but in particular women who decide to major in physics.

Q:  How do you mentor your students?

MC:  Science is really paramount, right? Desire to do research in this particular field is the most important thing. And if a student has interest, drive, and the ability to pursue that, I will encourage that, whether it’s a female or a male student. I try to encourage in particular female students to just keep their goal in mind, what really drives them to go into this field and to keep that clear, not to get too discouraged by these other things that can be sometimes hard and tough to deal with. And I try to do the same thing with undergraduate students.

Q:  You said you chose physics because you liked how it connected with the world.

MC:  Right. The type of theoretical physics I’m pursuing is very, how to say, somewhat even a romantic idea of Einstein’s dream to try to uncover the secrets of nature, the underlying principle, how it works, the unification ideas. And even after so many years it’s just like the first time. And so when I teach, it’s this excitement that we can always find in physics. And I want to transfer that to both undergraduate and graduate students as a mentor and teacher.

It’s a rewarding thing. It’s a great balance I’m glad I managed to achieve. I’m just trying to get better and keep on going strong in both directions of my calling, research and teaching.