PROFiles: Professor Lyzenga

As part of our alumni professor feature series, Alma Mudders, we interviewed HMC physics professor Gregory Lyzenga ’75.

Q: How did you discover Harvey Mudd College?
A: Well, I am pretty old so I went to college way before the Internet. Back in those days, when you were looking for colleges, you went through this really thick book called The College Handbook which had listings for all the colleges and their admissions criteria. At the time I was shopping around, there were two schools that I was very interested in: Caltech and MIT. It turned out that on the page after Caltech was this school I never heard of called Harvey Mudd. And I started looking into it and realized it was very interesting. By coincidence, my calculus teacher asked me if I’ve ever heard of a place called Harvey Mudd. He took a course last summer from one of the professors in the math department and thought it was a really amazing place.

Q: Of all the schools out there, why did you choose Mudd?
A: I chose Mudd partly because they accepted me but also because of the very strong recommendation from my calculus teacher. He said that at Mudd, I could be an individual instead of one person in a big place.

Q: How different was Mudd back then?
A: Harvey Mudd was a lot smaller then than it is now — about half the size. My whole frosh class was less than a hundred people. In many ways, the overall feel and culture of the place hasn’t changed a whole lot. But size does matter and when Harvey Mudd was a lot smaller, it was a lot easier to know everybody. I knew the name of every person in my class. There was a lot more unity among the dorms because there were only the four quad dorms (North, East, South, West.) Although there was a bit of distinctiveness in dorm identity, we were all one group. There was a lot more socializing between dorms. People didn’t identify with their dorms. It was somewhat unusual for me to see the separate dorm identities that exist today.

Q: Which classes were your favorite? Least favorite?
A: My first reaction when I got here as a frosh was that I felt guilty because all the classes were so awesome. It felt like going to dinner and finding out that it’s all dessert. When I was a frosh, there wasn’t a separate physics or chemistry course. They had a course called ‘natural philosophy’ and it alternated between physics and chemistry. I really enjoyed that a lot. I felt like I was learning really cool stuff.

Q: Can you describe your major?
A: Quantum mechanics is the course that decides whether your brain is wired as a physics major. My professor was someone who was an excellent lecturer and someone who I connected strongly with. It was perfect. I couldn’t wait until the next lecture to get the next installment. That class was a milestone for me in deciding that physics was what I wanted to do.
One thing about the physics major was that when I got into it, I became really enthusiastic about it and felt like I couldn’t get enough. I don’t know if I set it as a goal for myself or if it just happened but I ended up taking every single physics course that the physics major offered. For me it was like being a kid in a candy store. I was interested in everything that was being taught by the physics department so I ended up taking all those classes.
I had a particular interest in planetary science, especially geophysics. In another life I might have done a capstone in geophysics but I ended up doing research with a professor in a department who focused in astronomy. The lab work had applications to astronomy because you had to take spectroscopy measurements on elements to identify their spectra and how they would appear in the spectrum of a star. Then you could figure out the abundance of that element in the star. I got a lot of valuable lab experience on how to conduct hard experiments with high vacuums, light sources, and spectrometers. In retrospect, I think it was really fortunate that I chose that as my thesis project because I learned a lot of practical lab experience that would help me a lot in my later life.

Q: How was the workload at Mudd?
A: Difficult. I think everybody’s said that being at Mudd is like trying to drink from a fire hose. And that’s very true because I think that Harvey Mudd has always prided itself at being at the top of the heap in terms of the preparation that you get. What’s different from now is that people who couldn’t cope with the workload just left. That wasn’t considered unusual or negative. I remember knowing the names of all the students in my frosh class. Going back, I noticed that an awful lot of those people didn’t graduate. So it’s always been a difficult place. My sense was that it was hard but really worth it.

Q: What was your biggest obstacle during your time as a Mudd student and how did you overcome it?
A: I’ve always had a problem with – and I still do today – procrastinating. Procrastinating is not a good thing when you have a lot of work to do because you end up with all-nighters, sleep deprivation, and falling behind. I overcame procrastination by being around people who are good role models. When I came to Harvey Mudd, I found my people. I found people who I could learn from and relate to. We became lifelong friends.

Q: What hobbies or extracurriculars did you pursue while you were at Mudd?
A: We were talking about the workload issue and the main way I coped with that was by putting many of my outside interests on hold. One of the things that I did while I was in high school was sing in choir. And I came to Mudd thinking I could do all of that too. Partway through my freshman year, when I was contemplating singing in the choir, I had a revelation and realized I don’t think I could do all of this. I made a decision that I won’t be doing this and I was okay with not being able to do the outside activities and hobbies that I did. Although that seems like it’s a terrible thing, it’s only four years. When the four years is up, I can go back to all of that stuff.

Q: How did you decide to return to Mudd as a professor?
A: It was kinda unplanned. It happened by accident. After finishing graduate school, I got a job at JPL. And I figured that was pretty much going to be my career– working and doing research in geophysics. One thing that happened was that there was an opening in the physics department and I had made it as a practice in graduate school and in JPL to come back to Harvey Mudd and give a colloquium on whatever I was working on at the time. I was pretty well known by the members of the physics department who remembered me as a student or from my visits. I was contacted about the opening and asked if I might be interested in applying. My first reaction was, “Oh no, I’m happy where I am. There’s no reason for me to change my career.” But over a period of a couple of years, several things happened. I was then asked to teach a part time class. I thought “yeah I could do that, it might be fun.” So I came over and taught a night class at Harvey Mudd and my feelings about what mattered in my career started to shift. My work at JPL, while interesting and fulfilling, did not feel as important as I might possibly be doing. It started to feel to me that educating and teaching was a very important and fulfilling thing to do. So basically after ten years at JPL, I had a major mid-life crisis and switched over to teaching at Harvey Mudd.

Q: What went through your mind on the very first day that you taught at Mudd?
A: It’s nice to be back. It’s an interesting feeling to see some place you’re familiar with in one role in a completely different role. I do remember from that first semester of teaching was that wow, Harvey Mudd students were smarter than me. Even though I was a Harvey Mudd student, I realized, wow, I really need to know my stuff. Because if I don’t know my stuff, they’re gonna know. This was not gonna be an easy job.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about teaching here?
A: I think the best thing about teaching here is office hours. When students can come in to your office and they can talk to you about whatever’s on their mind, whether it’s the latest homework problem or something cool that they read or if they just wanna talk about life or whatever. That is what really to me is rewarding because you really feel like you’re helping people and connecting with people. I like pretty much everything, maybe not grading. I like to lecture. I like to teach in classes. But it’s really fun to have students come into your office for office hours.

Q: What’s your favorite class to teach?
A: That’s like asking what’s your favorite child. I like them all at some level. I really enjoyed teaching the core. I’ve enjoyed teaching mechanics. I’ve enjoyed teaching E&M. I love those subjects and really enjoy teaching them. But I like other things too. There’s a senior level course in the physics department called Fields and Waves and is probably the class that I’ve taught the most. Part of the reason why I wanted to teach it was that it was one of my favorites while I was a student. For people who aren’t physics majors, the closest thing to it is Continuum Mechanics in the engineering department. You learn about stress and strain in solids and fluids. You learn how to use tensors and solve problems in continuous media. It’s super practical because it was exactly the stuff I needed for graduate school.

Q: If you could change one thing about your Mudd experience, what would it be?
A: I don’t have a lot of regrets. I’m one of those really irritating people that basically thinks that it was great. It’s hard for me to pick something that would change. Not everything went perfectly. There were things, classes that I didn’t like. There were situations where I was sometimes frustrated. But I felt that in the end, it was a valuable experience. I learned something, even if it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Is ‘I don’t know’ an acceptable answer? I might have a different attitude now than if you had asked me right after I graduated. I didn’t regret anything.

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