Q&A: Next Dean of Keck Science Discusses Plans, Advice for Students

Ulysses Sofia joins Claremont as new dean of Keck Science. (Courtesy of Scripps College • The Student Life)

Dr. Ulysses J. Sofia will start as Dean of the Keck Science Department on July 1. Sofia has served as a teacher, researcher, and administrator in the past and specializes in astrophysics, conducting research on solar activity predictions, interstellar dust, and the interstellar medium. TSL spoke with him about his career with NASA and his dedication to liberal arts.

TSL: To start off, could you tell us about yourself and detail some of your accomplishments in life thus far? 

Ulysses Sofia: My father was an astrophysicist, and he was a professor at Yale, and so when I was growing up he would have the main journal of the field delivered home, the Astrophysical Journal. It was this gray-bound thing and had nothing but words and a few black-and-white figures and I thought, “I am never ever going into that field.”

When it was time for me to get my first summer job in high school, [my father] had a friend who was looking for a high school kid to do some data reductions with him at one of NASA’s space centers, and so I got that job, and I started doing it and thought, ‘Oh, this is actually kind of fun.’ So that’s how I actually got into this field. That first one started me off and after that I just kept on going. 

TSL: So, having had so much experience early on, were you sure going into college that you wanted to study astrophysics? 

US: No, I wasn’t sure. When I applied to college I knew I wanted to study the sciences, so I was actually thinking chemistry, but the summer before college I did my second year at NASA with my mentor there. After working with him for a second summer, I knew this is what I wanted to do. 

During my first two years of college, I was working on a payload to go up on a space shuttle, and so I got involved in that instrument during my freshman year. And that was right before the Challenger blew up. In fact, our payload was the one that was supposed to be the one going up after the Challenger, so that was kind of a bummer that I never got to see that go up, and when it finally did go up years later, I had already moved.

TSL: After college, then, how did you end up in teaching and education?

US: I [studied at] Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was a liberal arts institution where I got to interact with the faculty and I felt like I could ask questions in class, and I was encouraged to do research and worked on a telescope on campus and was working with the mentor I had at NASA. It was an atmosphere that was perfect for learning. At that point, there was no question that for the rest of my life, my goal was to get to a high-quality liberal arts institution.

TSL: What in particular sets aparts the Claremont Colleges from other institutions? 

US: One thing in particular that I love about the Keck program that’s different from a lot of the sciences is how integrative they are. They are leaders in integrating the sciences, and that's something that I’d wanted to do more with the positions I’ve been in, but that’s a very expensive thing to do, and it’s hard to do. It requires really good cooperation among the faculty and you have to be willing to put faculty together in a small class of students — and it could work well, but it could also go horribly.

The ability of the Claremont Colleges to make this integration work is not just in the classes, but in the way they do their research too. That’s incredibly attractive to me. It’s important because when you talk about any science these days, there’s almost nothing that’s pure physics or pure biology. Everything’s a mix of these things. If you look at some of the biggest concerns we have now, like climate change, you have to come together with all the sciences to find a solution.

There are so many institutions right now where ‘integration,’ ‘multidisciplinary’ — those are some of the buzzwords, but Keck has been doing it for years. They’re really at the lead of this. 

TSL: As the dean of the department, you’ll be carrying out a lot of the administrative details. Do you still plan on interacting with students directly? 

US: I hope so; that’s a big part of why I wanted to come back to a liberal arts institution. I don’t know how much I will be teaching, but I would definitely like to work on research with students. 

TSL: What advice do you have for students who are interested in research but are perhaps intimidated about getting more involved? 

US: The faculty at a place like the Claremont Colleges are here to help you explore, so we don’t expect you to come in to have great expertise or to know everything. We know you’re coming in without that experience and that you’re here to get it. So, don’t think there are a bunch of expectations for what you do or what you know; the whole point is to give you that experience. 

TSL: Do you have any other general advice for college students, and in particular those who are trying to figure out what to major in? 

US: Test things out. That’s the best way of doing it. If you think you have an interest in something, then do it. That’s the best way to figure out if you like it. And do things early. If you don’t do it early, then you might get in a spot where you’re like, "Oh, now I don’t have time to do that anymore because I spent too much time doing this other thing." So explore early on. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.