Spencer Hulsey, Class of 2020
I grew up on a farm in rural Illinois about two hours south of campus. Here, I raised chickens and bees and spent a considerable amount of time both climbing trees and subsequently falling out of trees. The minimal light pollution where I lived might have, in part, fostered my love of space, stars, and physics in ways that few classrooms could. However, it wasn't until I had the opportunity to visit the UIUC campus for a high school biology competition that I decided that physics was absolutely the way to go. By pure chance, a friend of mine was attending a physics lecture and asked me to join during the competition's lunch break. I clearly remember that day's lecture; Mats Selen demonstrating his trust in the conservation of energy with a bowling ball pendulum. How could I ever choose biology when physics is just more fun?!
Physics majors not having time for fun is an unfortunate misconception. I have so many fond memories from my time at Illinois Physics: helping build a science-based escape room, a trip to Fermilab, hosting liquid Nitrogen ice cream parties and making life-long friends while bonding over the pain Lagrangians wrought. Looking back, one thing that sticks out is how welcoming our department was. I never struggled to find help on a homework problem, knowing I could simply walk into the student interaction room and ask someone.
Outside of the classroom, UIUC boasts a wealth of things to do and people to do things with! Most of my classmates were engineers of some flavor, and each brought with them a niche and interesting passion: building robots, making music, flying drones, wiring breadboards, or making scientifically-sound bread! Student get-togethers were never boring. My closest friend group from my undergraduate days—about 12 of us whose schedules timed out in such a way that we shared a decent number of classes—would often study together. By the end of the course sequence, we all pitched in, bought T-shirts commemorating our professor, and then got ice cream together after the final. It was gloriously goofy.
Without a doubt, the highlight of my time on campus was my work with the student outreach group Physics Van. There’s something about seeing the excitement on kids’ faces when they get to ride a hoverboard or watch a trash can explode that simply can't be beat! I really learned what it meant for me to be a physics student. More importantly, I learned what I wanted to be after I graduated—a STEM advocate who can share a love of science with others.
Immediately after graduation, I started working at Epic, a healthcare software company in Madison, WI. Not exactly science outreach, but I graduated during a pandemic after all. I was one of 502 physics majors working for the company, and, despite there being 10,000+ staff members, we gravitated towards each other almost inexplicably. However, I knew a career in physics outreach was what I wanted more than anything, and when an opportunity to run STEM outreach programs for the University of Wisconsin came up, I applied.
Now, I build hands-on physics demos for youth campus events and set up outreach programs around the state. I am applying the same physics that I learned in class, such as electron transition levels and the concepts behind triboelectric nanogenerators, to make science kits for middle schoolers. I have even reached out to my former physics professors for advice and ideas! As a faculty member on a different campus, I have learned to appreciate all of the wonderful things that University of Illinois had to offer. Very few places seem to have what we have.
A final few words of advice to current and future physics majors: get sleep (when you can) and join Physics Van!