Pablo Laguna Takes the Helm of Physics

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This month, professor Pablo Laguna was named the new chair of the School of Physics. Born in Mexico, in the state of San Luis Potosi, Laguna received his bachelor’s in physics from Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa in Mexico City. He earned his doctorate at the University of Texas – Austin in 1987. He’s been at Georgia Tech since 2008 and is the director of the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics. Laguna spoke to me about his view of the field, the school and his plans for faculty, students and alumni.

David Terraso: What is it about astrophysics that excites you?

Pablo Laguna: We’re entering the time in which Einstein’s theory of general relativity can be tested in the regime of strong dynamical gravity, which means, for instance, that the gravity needed to explain the phenomena in the vicinity of black holes is not Newton’s gravity, it’s Einstein’s gravity.  What is amazing is that we are very, very close, within a few years, of directly detecting one of the effects predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity: gravitational waves. Such accomplishment will bring general relativity into the observational stage; something that I never thought it was going to be possible within the span of my career when I started as a graduate student.

Terraso:  So when that happens, will that change physics?

Pablo Laguna:  More than a change, observations of gravitational waves will open another window that we can use to look at the universe. In astronomy, there have been many instances in which a new window has been opened. Originally we used just traditional optical telescopes; then there were windows open in radio astronomy, followed by x-ray astronomy and just recently particle astrophysics. In this new window, the messenger will not be light or high-energy particles, but gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time. What I am excited about is that a trademark of the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics at Georgia Tech is faculty, postdocs and students engaged in multi-messenger astronomy research, that is, using light, particles and gravitational waves as tools of astronomical discovery.

Terraso: What do you enjoy about your job?

Pablo Laguna: Interacting with my students and postdocs is something I enjoy tremendously. I like to see how the careers of young people develop, and I look forward every morning to working together on exciting problems involving exotic objects like black holes and neutron stars.

Terraso: You’ve mentioned the research, how about teaching?

Pablo Laguna: I, of course, enjoy teaching courses closely related to my research, courses like gravitation, theoretical astrophysics, cosmology and computational physics. But, the courses I consider most challenging to teach, but at the same time find most rewarding, are the large introductory physics or astronomy courses.

Terraso: Really? Why is that?

Pablo Laguna: Because for a significant fraction of the students the class is not an elective or directly connected to their major. So there is the challenge of motivating them and making them realize that the subject is interesting, exciting and with great value to further their training. If you do it right, it gives you a great satisfaction when you see the positive reaction of the students.

Terraso:  How do you do it right?

Pablo Laguna: It’s best when you try to get as much interaction between the student and the person giving the lecture, which in those large classes is not always possible. But you can do class activities in which you have the entire class participating, for example dividing the class in groups that compete by answering questions or figuring out the physics behind a demonstration. In astronomy courses, you have the advantage that more visual tools are available. You can just go to the Internet and find videos and pictures from NASA and space missions, such as Chandra, that help bring the universe inside the classroom.

Terraso: What do you think your focus will be as chair?

Pablo Laguna: I am looking forward to the opportunity to partner with my faculty colleagues, students and postdocs to make our school an even more prominent center for scientific discovery, innovation and education. We have a terrific team of faculty, engaged in research expanding the frontiers of physics and related areas. At the same time, we recognize the need to increase the number of faculty in our school. Hiring must be strategic, identifying areas of growth and high impact opportunities. Another focus will be graduate student recruitment. We’ve made significant progress in attracting applications, not only from students at top institutions, but also from a more geographically diverse group of institutions. The immediate challenge is to increase the number of students from those institutions who accept our offers.

Terraso: What about for undergraduates?

Pablo Laguna: It’s best when you try to get as much interaction between the student and the person giving the lecture, which in those large classes it is not always possible. But you can for instance organize class activities to get the entire class participating by dividing the class in groups that compete answering questions or figuring out the physics behind a demonstration. Our school is very lucky to have outstanding teachers for these large introductory physics courses. One of them, Ed Greco, was recognized this year with theGeoffrey G. Eichholz Faculty Teaching Award. Also, we should forget that teaching nowadays is not static. The impact of technology on how we deliver courses and their scope is tremendous. Under the leadership of Mike Schatz, our school is already actively engaged in the development of Massive Open Online Courses. I envision our presence to not only continue but also increase.

Terraso: How do you plan on connecting the alumni to the school?

Pablo Laguna: Our job will be incomplete if we do not share with the alumni and general public the exciting scientific discoveries by people in our school. To do so, we need to continue enhancing our outreach activities, in particular those in which alumni are not just passive spectators, but they are engaged in the dialogue and conversation with our faculty, students and postdocs.



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