30 Grads in 30 Days: Nina McCurdy

Nina McCurdy (photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Name: Nina McCurdy

Age: 23

Major: Applied physics

Hometown: San Francisco

UCSC college: Cowell

Favorite class or professor and why?

I would have to say that my favorite class was Introduction to Modern Physics (101B) with professor Bruce Schumm. This was really my first taste of quantum physics. The equations were beautiful, elegant, and powerful, and Professor Schumm took us from one to the next with such ease and grace. Schumm's lectures opened our eyes to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

Most memorable experience at UCSC?

It must have been the end of my freshman year. I was taking this multivariable calculus (123a) class taught by the brilliant and beloved Richard Mitchell. Not only is Mitchell a wonderful speaker, he is a master of the art of illustrating his lessons on the chalkboard. One day, we were all furiously taking notes on Gaussian surfaces and doing our very best to translate his beautiful depictions into our notebooks when mid-stroke, his piece of purple chalk reached the edge of the chalkboard. After only an instant of contemplating the situation, Mitchell lifted his chalk up and over the edge of the board and completed his illustration on the wall above. The class nearly lost it. What was, in actuality, a minor act of compensation was, at that moment, the most brilliant thing we had ever seen!

Favorite spot on campus and why?

My favorite spot is probably at the top of the first incline on the bike path down from the Music Center. At the end of a long day on Science Hill, I hop on my bike and begin my journey home; around Kerr Hall, past the Media Theater, toward the Music Center, to the start of the bike path, up to the top of that first incline and before an utterly breathtaking view of the Monterey Bay.

How has UCSC shaped you?

My time at UCSC has taught me not to believe in anything, whether it be a scientific theory, a social movement, or a way of life, to the extent where I can no longer reflect critically on it.

What are your future plans?

The focus of my senior thesis was presenting concepts in physics to the general public through visual representation. I hope to pursue a career in this field. I am currently working for Professor Joel Primack, who is committed to science outreach and to bringing his very high-resolution cosmological simulations to the general public. I am very grateful for this opportunity, and I am excited to see where this work takes me and what kind of opportunities arise from it.

How did you choose your college, and how has your college affected your education?

I'm pretty sure I chose Cowell because I thought that my mom had gone there back in the '70s. As it turns out, she was actually associated with Kresge. Whatever led me to Cowell, I am very happy that I ended up there. I really appreciated the fact that Cowell attracts people from all academic persuasions. And, as is the case for many people, the wonderful, smart, and talented friends I made my freshman year in those Cowell dorms are ones that I am determined to keep for a very long time.


When I declared as a physics major, I didn't really believe that I would make it through the entire program. I figured that I would go as far as I could and then change paths when I couldn't take it anymore. So I guess I would have to say that receiving a B.S. in a subject that didn't necessarily come naturally to me in the beginning is my greatest accomplishment at UCSC.

Over the five years that I have been at UCSC, I've had the opportunity to work with some really wonderful professors. Last summer I helped Professor George Brown illustrate the lower division physics lab manuals. More recently, I created an animation aimed at presenting properties of quantum mechanics to the general public (with Professor Zack Schlesinger), as well as an interactive aimed at teaching the general public about gamma rays (with Professor David Williams) for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. I have also had the honor of being awarded the Ron Ruby Scholarship in 2008.

Lastly, I believe that anyone who manages to bike up to school, even on a semi-regular basis, should note it as an accomplishment.