By David King, University Marketing
Physics major learns across a wide range of fields
The second semester of her sophomore year at Texas State, Ava Pope met Edvard Munch. The Norwegian artist, most famous for his painting The Scream, quite simply changed her life.
It started with an honors class assignment about one of Munch’s paintings. It quickly branched into research trips to Europe. It grew into hours spent in fields far from her major of physics. It developed into what will be lifelong relationships with professors in a range of disciplines.
And studying Munch’s Starry Night led a student with a diverse range of interests to an even greater diversity, as well as a passion for learning that is turning toward a career in academia.
Not bad results for an artist who has been dead since 1944.
San Marcos Native
By the time Ava Pope walked into her first freshman class, she knew a lot about Texas State. Besides growing up in San Marcos, she had come to campus every day to take calculus when she was a senior at San Marcos High School and had spent large parts of her free time on the San Marcos River.
Still, she had applied to a number of universities around the state, as well as one in Colorado, with the intention to major in mathematics and become an engineer.
“At first, I wasn’t too inclined to go here,” she says.
But she applied for and received several scholarships — she was one of the top students in her graduating class — and made the decision to stay close to home. She also came to the attention of Dr. Heather Galloway, a professor in the Department of Physics and the head of the University Honors Program. The summer before Pope started at Texas State, she and her mother were at a youth soccer meeting, and Galloway approached them.
“She came up to my mom and me and said, ‘You know, you should really join the honors program,’” Pope recalls. “I had no idea who she was or where she came from. It was kind of intimidating. She talked to us for, I don’t know, an hour, and I ended up joining the honors program before I ever started at Texas State.”
She also wound up with physics as her major — making her one of the rare women in her classes — and with one of her first mentors at the university. Being in Galloway’s classes and seeing her practically every day at the Honors Coffee Forum led to a comfortable relationship between Pope and Galloway.
“Having a female physics professor makes it natural for us to be closer,” Galloway says. Their love of soccer — Pope coached Galloway’s daughter’s team as part of a commitment to do volunteer work — added to the bond.
Another physics professor, Dr. Donald Olson, teaches an honors class called Astronomy in Art, History and Literature. Olson uses an interdisciplinary approach to tie literature and works of art to specific astronomical events and times, and his research — dubbed forensic astronomy — has been studied and reported around the world.
Pope took his honors class her sophomore year, and late in the semester she went to him, seeking an idea for her final paper. He handed her a copy of Munch’s Starry Night.
“He says, ‘Why don’t you try and figure out when this was painted?’” Pope says. “So I spent a couple of weeks trying to figure it out. He had a star chart program on the computer, and I went through every day in the summer of 1893, looking at the stars and trying to find when they matched the painting. It took forever.”
Still, she was intrigued, enough to ask to join Olson’s research team. That summer, she went to Norway with Olson to do more research on Munch’s paintings. She’s also been to France, Switzerland and New York State on projects relating to other works of art, as well as a Walt Whitman poem.
“I’ve learned more random information over the past two years than in the rest of my life combined,” Pope says. “Going into the basements of old houses, looking at notebooks from the 1800s, learning about the historical and literary aspects of these works was really, really cool. It was something physics majors don’t get too much exposure to.”
Nor many undergraduates.
“One of the great things about Ava’s story is that it shows how undergraduates at Texas State are working with our top scholars and scientists,” Galloway says. “I’ve talked to eminent scientists at other schools who are really proud that they’ve had three or four undergraduates in 10 years. And I’m like ‘When I was running an active research program, I would have four at a time.’”
Pope, who earned her bachelor’s in May, has started work on a doctorate in physics at the University of North Carolina.
And while no one in Chapel Hill, N.C., is studying the relationship between a Walt Whitman poem and a celestial phenomenon called an earth-grazing meteor procession, Pope’s work at Texas State has given her a deeper appreciation for the process of learning.
She recalls Olson stopping in the middle of a day of historical research to teach her a bit of mathematics, “something I can use down the line,” she says. Her interest in the outdoors led to a friendship with Susan Hanson, an English professor who taught an honors course called Nature and the Quest for Meaning.
“The opportunities that the honors program presented me with were just incredible,” Pope says. “Exposing me to the world and meeting people and seeing all these things was really neat.
“The relationships I developed with Dr. Olson and my other teachers are really, really strong. We’ll maintain contact forever.”
They might even be colleagues one day. Pope sees herself doing work in experimental physics, continuing to be a pioneer in a male-dominated field and eventually sharing that knowledge, teaching and researching at a university.
“I would love to wind up back in academia,” she says. “I love the college environment, being around people with new ideas.”
And sometimes, even Norwegian painters.