Barry McNamara  |   Published July 26, 2017

Kumar ‘at home’

Physics professor enjoys teaching, going beyond the discipline at Monmouth
MONMOUTH, Ill. – From since he can remember, Monmouth College Associate Professor of Physics Ashwani Kumar has wanted a career in an academic setting. He’s found that home at Monmouth, where he has an opportunity inspire students.

“I determined that my future was in the United States, so I left India to study at Florida State University,” said Kumar, who earned degrees at two universities in India before receiving his master’s degree and Ph.D. at FSU. “The staff at Florida State was nice, and the professors were nice, and it was the same at Purdue University, where I was in a post-doc program.”

But he found something missing – the opportunity to teach.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “Growing up in my village in northern India, I knew farmers and teachers and people who were kind of doctors. The teachers were all happy people, they knew everything, and they had the respect of the community.”

But at Florida State and Purdue, said Kumar, “all you do is research.”

“While I was at Purdue, I had the opportunity to speak with the department chair from (nearby) Wabash College,” he said. “The more I talked to him, I really liked the idea of what a liberal arts college is. It seemed to be more my taste.”

Kumar joined the Monmouth faculty in 2011, and this spring he was promoted to associate professor.

“Becoming a teacher is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he said. “I’m really blessed with great friends and colleagues at Monmouth. Sometimes I feel like it’s a dream.”

Going beyond the discipline

Monmouth’s Integrated Studies curriculum has allowed Kumar to explore beyond his discipline. He especially enjoys doing that in a Reflections course, “Cosmology and Creation,” which was developed by one of his physics department predecessors, Raj Ambrose, also a native of India.

“I not only get to teach physics, but I get to explore philosophically,” said Kumar. “In the course, we ask, ‘Why am I here?’ This fall will be my third time teaching it. I like that it encourages our students to think more critically and more philosophically.”

Instead of merely presenting facts, Kumar prefers to “teach students to learn how to learn.”

“It’s like training for a sport,” he said. “I can tell you the right way to hit a tennis ball or to kick a soccer ball, but you have to actually do it to really learn. I don’t want them to just believe me. I might demonstrate something, but then they learn by doing.”

He added, “I really appreciate the opportunity to inspire students. To see the spark in their eyes when they really understand something gives me great pleasure.”

Superconductivity research

When Kumar was a student, he had a knack for numbers, but while his friends continued on with their studies in mathematics, he branched off into physics.

“I wanted to understand nature – to understand how the whole thing works,” he said. “And mathematics is the language of physics.”

Kumar developed an interest in, “if I want to use a fancy word for it, quantum phase transitions.” At Monmouth, he has also developed a knack for deep-space photography by using the College’s Trubeck Telescope. The Ring Nebula and the Whirlpool Galaxy are among his favorite subjects.

Ultra-thin metal films and two-dimensional electron gas (2DEG) systems provide excellent ground to study quantum phase transitions, said Kumar.

“Currently superconductors are used primarily for generating high magnetic field in research labs, submarine power generators, maglev trains and – you may be surprised – in MRI machines at your local hospitals,” he said. “However, all these systems require extremely low temperatures – close to -450 degree Fahrenheit. Once we have better understanding of superconductivity we should be able to carry electricity from, say, Arizona to Chicago, without any loss. Right now, we don’t have that ability at normal temperatures, only at really low temperatures of less than minus-320 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Researchers are currently exploiting superconductors and 2DEG systems for quantum computers.

Kumar said he’s not sure where discoveries in superconductivity and study of quantum phase transitions will lead, but he’s hopeful it’s similar to a scientific statement made in the 1890s.

“When electrons were discovered, the scientists said, ‘It may never be useful, but it’s a great discovery,’” he said. “Of course, as we know now, everything is about electrons. Nothing works without that knowledge. So who knows where work with superconductivity and quantum computers will lead.”
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