PROFiles: Professor Nicholas Breznay

As part of our alumni professor feature series, Alma Mudders, we interviewed HMC physics professor Nicholas Breznay ’02.

Aeronautics club student enthusiasts, ca 1999. Jay Wolkin, in whose memory Jay’s Place is named, is on the far left. Nicholas Breznay is center. Photo from Judy Wang, who was at Mudd 1998-2001.

Why did you come back to Harvey Mudd?

I’ve always had a place like Harvey Mudd on my horizon, having been a student here and having had a sense of what the balance is of the expectation of awesome teaching but also the opportunity to do world-class research. Since then, and getting academic experience at Stanford and Berkeley and elsewhere, I realized that Harvey Mudd is unique in that respect. There’s only one place in this overlap region. I certainly wasn’t expecting to come back to Harvey Mudd since jobs are few and far between and once you’ve limited it to a sub-field, that means often there’s only 5 or 10 openings in a year. I always knew that Harvey Mudd would be an amazing place to be. I was very lucky they had job openings!

What has been your most embarrassing moment as a professor?

It’s awkward for everyone involved when you run into someone off campus in the real world — in the non-Mudd world. And you never know what to do, because maybe people want their own space. I don’t want to be invasive. Figuring that out one human at a time is a thoughtful thing to do, but it also means there’s that awkwardness. Harvey Mudd can be stressful and sometimes you just want to decompress and look away. I’m here because I like being here and teaching here and [being around] students, so, regardless of where that is, if you see me you should (feel free to) say hi.

What would you do if you weren’t a professor?

I’m really excited to be here, but if I were forced to retire, the other thing that I thought would be fun is having a used bookstore. I like used bookstores and I’m also sort of obsessed with organizing things and collecting information, putting things in databases and spreadsheets. Even though I know that’s a terrible business proposition, I think that would be fun.

What was your least favorite class?

Class that I completed? There are several that I dropped. I got like a 30 something on my first astrophysics midterm. I dropped that class. I dropped E4 after about five weeks. No smirching on any engineers — I wanted to be an engineer when I showed up and I actually got a lot out of Stems and I use some Stems stuff all the time now, so I’m glad I took it. But yeah, I loved Physics 51 and I did not love E4. So, I started doing research with Professor Donnelly and that’s how I became a physics major. But, in terms of classes that I actually completed– I would have to go back and look. I think my least favorite classes are ones that have like drifted out of my memory. Whereas there’s a ton of classes that I do remember that I enjoyed. The danger is that if I put a least favorite class, the professor might still be teaching it.

What are 3 words people would describe you with in college?

That suggests a level of self awareness that’s hard to have, especially when you’re still growing and learning. I’m still becoming who I am, and I certainly was when I was a student here. Maybe some people said I was intimidating or aloof which always came across as very strange to me. I’m a very humble person and automatically think highly of new people I meet. I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re brilliant and I start out intimidated in any situation. I’m not necessarily at ease in social situations. That feeling that everybody else around me knows what’s happening and I don’t — that was a strange thing to find out that people had that sense of me in return which I certainly never intended to project.

People have always acknowledged that I’m thoughtful. I make space for others in some sense. Because I played on The Brains [Claremont Braineaters Ultimate Frisbee] and had friends off campus, maybe I had less of a Harvey Mudd reputation. Because I worked in the mailroom, I pretty much knew everyone’s name. I was friendly with everyone on campus.

I applied to be proctor my senior year which I was excited to do, but I didn’t make the cut. Part of it might have been because I did more stuff off campus, I didn’t have as much of a close connection broadly within the Harvey Mudd community, and I know that’s a big part of being a proctor.

What’s the biggest difference between when you were here and now?

It seems smaller. There are like little, not significant things: there’s new buildings; there’s no pool. The feel [of the campus] changes. But it also feels like, having gone to Harvey Mudd and then having spent many years at Stanford and many years at Berkeley, this version of Harvey Mudd feels much more like the Stanford and Berkeley that I experienced as a PhD student and post-doc, in terms of what people are doing and how they seem to be interacting. It seems like more of a, not normal in some judgemental way, but typical college campus. It seems like there are more skateboards, fewer unicycles. More people may be looking outwards in a very positive way, I think, versus just in some sort of gaming culture. My freshman year, StarCraft came out and StarCraft was a big thing — StarCraft is still a thing for people who are into computer gaming. And it was like, people called it StarCrack. It was like people would sort of fail classes because they were so invested in gaming. I know that that’s still a thing to some level, but it was pervasive.

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