Meet physics student, Kyle Kawagoe

June 9, 2021

Kyle Kawagoe was born and raised in Reedley, California. Before coming to University of Chicago, he was an undergraduate in The College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He has been a graduate student at UChicago for five years in the Department of Physics. His field of study is theoretical hard condensed matter physics and the physics of topological phases of matter. When the COVID-19 lockdowns started in the United States, he pivoted to theoretical biophysics, doing research on epidemiological modeling. We interviewed him about his experiences below.

Why did you choose the University of Chicago?

I chose to come to UChicago largely because there were several faculty I would enjoy working with. I wanted to do work on the mathematical side of physics, and UChicago had this in spades.

When I visited UChicago for the first time, the students who showed me around were very different than students at other universities. Rather than the conversation being dominated by what one does when one is not doing research, we had a conversation about physics. This communicated to me not that they didn’t have fun, but rather that they loved their work so much that it was how they had fun! To me, that is a perfect environment. Of course, it’s important to do things other than research. But if you can have fun doing your “work,” then every day is a joy.

What is something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago?

I’m proud of the connections I’ve made with the students I’ve TA’ed over the years. It’s not an experience every TA makes room for, but for me it’s been incredibly rewarding, and I am proud of those experiences.

What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?

I enjoy running, playing the banjo (badly), and playing Dungeons and Dragons… though not at the same time.

What are your plans post-UChicago?

In the fall, I will be applying to post-doctoral positions!

What support have you received at the UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?

The mental health branch of Student Wellness has been invaluable to me in the past year.

If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?

UChicago is a place where knowledge is an end unto itself. If you are an undergrad, talk to the graduate students, professors, and other scientific staff! Most are incredibly dedicated to their craft and are happy to talk with you about their work.

How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?

I grew up in an area of California that was very low SES and had a large immigrant population. Only half of my incoming high school class graduated. I believe strongly in scientific outreach to underserved communities, but it’s important to keep in mind that the child who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from may not care, and rationally so, about why a light bulb lights. Diversity and inclusion at the college level is a good and important start, but it’s going to take so much more at a societal level for the children of my childhood friends to graduate high school.

This is all to say that I think keeping an air of humility in our academic arena is incredibly important since our purview is so limited. However, as for diversity and inclusion at the college level, I think many of the same lessons apply. The student who is struggling is not “less than” another. They are a person with a full background and life story and have all kinds of struggles that go unseen. I’ve lived an enormously privileged life, but I grew up in an area without privilege. Those experiences, a few years of reflection, and wise friends taught me to see the members of classes I’ve TA’ed as people first and as students second.

Just to clarify, I also don’t think that the current inequalities in our society should stop us from doing outreach! Outreach, especially in underserved communities, can help expose young minds to new and fascinating ideas. There are many extraordinary children who, with grit and determination, get inspired and make their own way. By all means we should go full steam ahead and reach as many children as possible. However, we should do so with humility, with thoughtful intention, and without the idea that we are saviors.

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