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Yumi Ijiri

Professor of Physics, Oberlin College

Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones 

It's really important to know yourself well.

What do you do?

I do many different things in my role as a physics professor; the main four I would highlight are teaching undergraduate students, researching unusual magnetic materials, serving on committees/organizing things, and advising students.

 

Teaching is what most people assume I do when I say I am a physics professor, particularly at a liberal arts, primarily undergraduate, college.  Certainly, this is a key aspect of my job.  I teach students in a variety of courses, some pretty standard ones like classical mechanics, others very hands-on in experimental laboratory techniques, some advanced and specialized like an elective in materials physics, and others more broad such as a writing-focused seminar for first-year college students on societal aspects of technology.

 

Another very important part of my job is research;  I'm interested in measuring and explaining the behavior of unusual magnets, typically made in special ways, either as very thin films or very tiny particles.  With my research students at Oberlin and collaborators at other universities and national laboratories, I investigate the manner in which the magnetic moments arrange themselves on the nanoscale.  That sentence has a bunch of jargon in it so more basically, I want to know how and why do the "compass needles" of atoms point inside materials in a particular fashion.

 

A third part of my job is not usually in most people's mind when they hear the job "professor" -but I do spend a fair amount of time in committees or otherwise organizing and evaluating things.  For instance, I'm currently the secretary/treasurer for a group of physicists whose research is in magnetism, I've helped organize several magnetism conferences, I review grant proposals and journal manuscripts. For my college, I've served on committees to review materials for promotion and tenure or for curriculum or for college admissions or for writing or...sometimes this aspect of my job can make a lot of demands!

 

Finally, I also advise students - sometimes in coursework decisions (like should I take this physics course or a different one) but more interestingly in much longer term ones related to what comes next (graduate school?  a job in STEM?).  College is a really important time of life for many people, and it can be very rewarding to help out and make a difference at this critical stage.

Why did you choose this field?

I chose this particular field - condensed matter or materials physics - because I like the way you can discover something about a material (its magnetic structure for instance), try to explain why it behaves that way, and then possibly someone can take what you've learned to make something interesting and useful (like a computer hard drive or some other device).  I find it very attractive that there are both fundamental and practical aspects to it.

 

I'm not sure there was really an "aha" moment in ending up where I am - if you asked my middle school or high school classmates and teachers what they thought I would be doing for my career, they would probably have guessed what I'm doing!  Since as long as I can remember, I liked logic puzzles and games and solving problems.  My parents, particularly my father, were very supportive, as was my school (an all-girls private K-12 school). I fortunately had a lot of nice experiences along the way:  my middle school accelerated me in math by two years so I ended up taking AP calculus as a sophomore, I participated in some high school programs like the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences, and I was recognized in others, like being in the honors group for the then Westinghouse Science Talent Search program.  

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

I would highlight having and raising two children while also being a professor - probably the most challenging yet important achievement!

Why do you love working in STEM?

"There's so much in the world we don't understand and don't control, it's nice to be a part of an effort to counter that."

As I mentioned earlier, I like being able to explain something - that we've made a measurement and now have some idea of why something acts in some way.  

Best advice for the next generation

It's really important to know yourself well - what comes really easily for you? What is the biggest struggle?  What makes you happiest? What do you fear the most? In short, what do you need to do your best work? And then knowing these things, seeking the people/the resources/the environment that puts you in that best place.   

Fun fact

I have a growing collection of magnetism-related toys (a plush toy shaped like a horseshoe magnet, an emu stuffed animal, a magnetic bowling game...).