“How hard is the test?” an anxious Physics I student asked Professor Kristine Callan the week before the course’s first exam. “Well, I took it last night and got a C+,” Callan replied. The class went silent. Then anxious murmurs arose. “Guys, I’m just kidding. I haven’t taken it yet,” Callan said and nervous laughter filled the room. Though perhaps slightly cruel, witty responses is one of the many ways Callan both teaches and amuses her physics students.
Callan graduated from Duke with her PhD in Physics in June of 2013 and is a first year faculty member at Mines. Her road to Mines though, saw many twists and turns. “I went to undergrad at Pacific University [and] majored in physics and math. Straight out of graduating [from Pacific], I went to Duke for graduate school. I started there in 2005, and in 2008 I left with a master’s,” Callan said. “[I] wrote a master’s thesis, still not sure why I did that, but it was a good experience.”
After graduating from Duke with her master’s in physics, Callan went to teach high school physics at a private all-girls school in Boston for two years before returning to Duke to pursue her PhD.
Callan credits one of the reasons she returned to Duke to her realization that she was capable of earning her PhD. “A big part of me leaving was thinking that I wasn’t able to do it. I was actually enrolled in the PhD program originally, and I just decided halfway through to just get a Master’s and go teach.”
In addition to realizing she could earn her PhD, Callan wanted to teach to a more diverse group of students. “I really liked teaching high school, I liked that age group, but I wasn’t certified to teach at a public school, so I was teaching at private schools,” Callan said.
“I felt like even though I loved my students, I was really just teaching a very small sector of the population that was kind of privileged. I wanted to find a way to interact with people from a variety of different backgrounds. I feel like at the college level, people get scholarships, and you can get a little more diversity than in the private school world. “
When Callan began looking for a college at which to teach, Mines’ unique culture caught her eye. “I love the way that Mines values all different kinds of faculty members, from people who really are focused into their research and advising graduate students all the way to people who really just love teaching the introductory classes like I do,” Callan said. “It’s one of the few places that actually has it set up well for people to make teaching their number one job, which is really what I wanted.”
Though that was the main draw, Callan was also drawn to the Mines students. “When I interviewed, the students were just awesome. I got students to come sit in on my demo lectures and they were great and a lot of fun,” Callan said. “I love teaching science and so to have a school where people come here because they all really like science is awesome, even if they don’t all want to be physics majors.”
Becoming a physics professor was not a goal that Callan developed as a young child, but teaching in some capacity was. “I’ve always loved teaching, even in high school. I always loved tutoring my friends,” Callan said. “I was on the basketball team and on road trips I would always be the one in the back of the bus helping everyone with their math homework.”
Physics actually never crossed Callan’s radar until her sophomore year of college. “Once I took [physics] I was like, ‘Oh, I really like this, maybe I’ll double major in math and physics.’ Up until that point I was going to do math all the way, and then it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I really decided I wanted to do graduate school in physics. Even at that point it was a scary thing to say I wanted to be a physics professor. It was this huge, daunting thing.”
“I still can’t believe I am a physics professor,” Callan said.
So far, Callan is enjoying all that Mines has to offer. “The students all seem very hard-working and nerdy in a good way,” Callan said. “I like that everyday I see people slacklining in the commons. So far, everyone’s just been super friendly, which is nice.”