A Beautiful Dance: Stefanie Hersey ‘20 on the Pairing of Physics and Math

Numbers have always come easy to Stefanie Hersey. A life-long resident of Cranston, RI, Hersey spent her early school years fostering her burgeoning talent for numbers and calculations; her sixth grade teacher even let her lead a lesson on factorials. In high school, she realized how much math it takes to describe the motion of a ball, a car, or even the planets. “My passion for math opened the door to physics for me,” she explains, as she realized that “the applications of physics are endless.” Hoping to pursue a career teaching physics, she later began her URI career as a physics and education double major, but it was ultimately her first semester freshman year in Honors Elementary Physics I with Dr. Leonard Kahn that really sealed the deal for her. “In this class I was certainly challenged, but it was the environment and the experience that inspired me to shift my focus purely onto physics,” she says. “As a woman pursuing this degree, I have faced my fair share of comments like ‘you will not be respected as a woman in physics’ and ‘you’re going to have to work a lot harder than the guys around you’. For the first time, I felt truly equal to and supported by my male peers and advisors in this domain. There was no hesitation to include me in discussions — my opinion mattered.”

Devoting herself primarily to physics over the following three years, Hersey found an inclusive community that fostered her passion for physics as a woman in STEM. Inspired by her experience freshman year, she took three more courses with Dr. Kahn as an undergraduate student in addition to her senior capstone project. “URI Physics has shown me my value in the STEM field both as a woman and as an aspiring physicist,” she says. “I am truly inspired to continue my education and take this experience and hold every program I encounter to a high standard of respect and equality. Dr. Kahn has shown me the importance of a passionate, inclusive teacher — a lesson I will carry with me through my future teaching career.”

Hersey was also taking plenty of required math courses for her physics degree, and she began to notice the useful correlation the subject had to her primary major. “Seeing the way one entire math class would suddenly appear in a single physics problem, or using a physics application to explain the meaning of a mathematical concept began to feel like I was watching a beautiful dance,” she explains. “The two subjects complemented each other undeniably, so I added an applied mathematics major to my course load. Taking so many math classes showed me a closer behind-the-scenes look at the mathematical concepts we were using every day in the physics classroom. I feel stronger in both subjects separately due to my combined exposure to them.” 

After graduating in May 2020 with a degrees in physics and applied mathematics, Hersey is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Applied Mathematics at URI. “I was able to teach an asynchronous class MTH 103 last semester,” she says, “and this semester I am teaching a section of MTH 131 synchronously on Zoom. It’s been a fantastic first teaching experience so far!” She hopes to begin a Ph.D. program in physics in the fall. While she still aspires to teach physics one day, she now hopes to do so with a Ph.D. in hand teaching at a university, and she credits the foundation URI instilled in physics and mathematics as helpful components in realizing her dreams. To those on the other end of the pipe just starting out their college experience within the College of Arts and Sciences, Hersey has plenty of advice to give, as she states: “Don’t be afraid to explore everything A&S has to offer! Branch out from your intended major and you may find another area of interest for you. Take advantage of the requirement for general education credits and take things that will truly interest you and help you in your degree. Have a study group — develop a group of peers and friends that will work with you, help you, and keep you on track. Be vocal about your interests; join clubs, sports, groups, etc. — meet people! Enjoy your time in A&S and at URI.”

Read Hersey’s Senior Spotlight from May 2020 here.

~Written by Chase Hoffman, Writing & Rhetoric and Anthropology Double Major, URI Class of December 2020