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Career Profile

Natasha Holmes

Assistant Professor (Physics)
Cornell University
Natasha Holmes headshot
Natasha Holmes headshot
Location Born
Education Pathway
School Subject

I study how people learn physics and how to structure physics courses to improve student learning.

About me

I was born/grew up in: I was born in Peterborough, ON and grew up there until I was 10 (lived in Omemee, ON and went to school in Lindsay, ON). I lived in the United Arab Emirates from when I was 10-17 and then finished high school in Kitchener, ON.

I now live in:  Ithaca, NY, USA

I completed my training/education at:   Undergraduate: University of Guelph, BSc. Physics; Graduate: University of British Columbia, MSc. Physics; University of British Columbia, PhD. (Physics Education Research); Post-doctoral work: Stanford University

What I do at work

As a physics education researcher, I study how people learn physics and how to structure physics courses to improve student learning. I spend a lot of time analyzing data and planning new areas to research. I also spend a lot of time reading and writing papers on what I have learned.

We use a lot of statistical methods to try to understand how students are learning and experiencing physics instruction. We often engage in problem solving as we try to make sense of what data is saying. This could be when we are deciding the best way to analyze data. It could also be when we are figuring out how to communicate our findings to others. There’s a lot of creativity, flexibility, and subjectivity in that process.  We are very careful about what decisions we make when handling the data to make sure we’re being as objective as possible.

Fortunately, I get to work with a lot of people – students, postdocs, instructors, other researchers. Scientific research is always a team effort! That collaboration really helps to make sure we’re evaluating the problems from multiple angles and considering other perspectives. It also helps provide checks on our potential biases.

When I was in high school, I had the impression that science was all about math and experiments. I spend a surprisingly large amount of my time reading and writing. A lot of how scientific knowledge gets shared is through written publications. As a result, we always have to read what new research is being published. It also means we must also figure out how to communicate our research with others. Lastly, I get to teach! Interacting with students is one of the most joyful parts of the job. I love watching them fall in love with science the way I did as a student.

My career path is

When I was in high school, I thought about becoming a professional dancer. When I applied to university, I planned to be a biochemistry major and maybe go to medical school. When I landed on physics as a major, I explored different areas from planetary science to particle physics. It wasn’t until graduate school that I realized that I could combine my love of learning (and school) with my love of physics to study how people learn.

There were a lot of influential people throughout all these decisions. This includes my high school physics teacher, Mr. Abbass, who helped me realize I could be good at physics after failing his first test. It also includes my first-semester physics professor, Dr. McFarland, who convinced me not to worry about what career I would get and follow what I was passionate about. It also includes all the folks I worked with in grad school who helped me discover this field and my niche. I think all the switches I made were a result of all kinds of people and events helping me discover my strengths, and my passions. They all helped me realize what I can achieve when I put in the work!

I am motivated by

What gets me most excited at work is stumbling onto a surprising result or a confusing problem. There’s something weirdly joyful about hitting a roadblock and working with my team to figure out what’s going on.

As a scientist, I’m really driven by discovering something that no one else knew before. Surprising results or difficult problems tell me that we might be making a breakthrough. While those challenges can be frustrating, we know that we have the skills and tools to work through them. We also know that, with a little patience, we can uncover something really neat!

Working with a team helps reduce frustration. I think I would be much more frustrated if I were working alone. Instead, we get to pool our resources, brainstorm, and strategize solutions. We work together to figure out what’s going on. It’s the opposite of the sense of isolation I had pictured when I envisioned a scientist working at their lab bench or confusion.

How I affect peoples’ lives

My research and teaching directly impacts students’ learning and experiences in physics class. This is very rewarding. I love hearing from other instructors who have used my research papers to make changes to their instruction and have seen huge improvements in their classes.

Outside of work I

Outside of work and school, I have always danced! I have been doing ballet since I was 3 years old and have kept it up ever since. I also love theater (musicals, especially), getting outside for hikes with my dog, and helping my husband cook (he’s a way better cook than I am).

My advice to others

My advice would be the same advice Prof. McFarland gave me: Whatever you decide to do, you’re going to do it for a long time and spend a lot of your time doing it, so you’d better do something you love!

When I was a student, I enjoyed:
  • Math
  • Science
  • Dance
  • Music
  • Student council (and other opportunities to organize things for the school)
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
  • Brought people together
  • Liked helping people
  • Organized activities for my friends
  • Played on a sports team
  • Wanted to be in charge
  • Engaged in volunteer activities
  • Liked reading
  • Felt great satisfaction in getting good grades
  • Wasn't sure what I wanted to do
  • Danced and sang in choir

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