In Memoriam: Alfred Kwok, Pomona Physics Professor

Physics professor Alfred Kwok will be remembered for his genuine investment in his students and his discipline. (Courtesy of Pomona College)

At a candlelight vigil on Friday, Sept. 23, students, staff, faculty, and alumni gathered to honor the memory of Alfred Kwok, Pomona College physics & astronomy professor and department chair. During the vigil, many shared anecdotes and reflections that demonstrated Kwok’s wide-reaching impact as a professor, mentor, and friend.

Kwok, 50, is remembered by those who knew him for his unique ability to forge connections between people.

“The social connections were I think what drove him in so much, even in his physics,” Pomona physics professor Dwight Whitaker said. “When we would talk about a topic of physics that we shared, it almost always started with what people in common that we knew and what their experiments were. It always started with people first, and I think that’s how he approached a lot of his life.”

Kwok came to Pomona in 2000 from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Hong Kong and earned his Ph.D. from Yale University and his B.A. from UC Santa Cruz.

“Some of his research interests included microresonators/whispering gallery modes, laser spectroscopy and nonlinear optics,” an article on the Pomona College website stated.

Whitaker said that Kwok’s research most recently focused on the applications of lasers to biophysics, trying to look at how ions flow across cell membranes.

“He was one of these scientists who went after the important, really hard to answer questions and wasn’t daunted by the fact that everyone else had failed at trying to see these things,” Whitaker said. “His background was in laser physics and he was a straight up laser jock. He never met a laser he didn’t love, I’m pretty sure.”

Bry Hong PO ‘18, one of Kwok’s advisees, wrote in an email to TSL that Kwok “loved spending time in his lab, coming into lab in the late hours of the night to work with his optics set up for his research. “

Kwok was also a dedicated and demanding teacher known for meticulously designing and redesigning his curriculums.

Sabrina Li PO ‘17 and Dulcie Head PO ’14, who both took Statistical Mechanics course with Kwok, said that his teaching helped them gain confidence as physics majors.

“In his classes I was able to find a voice for myself, and he would allow me to challenge him,” Li said.

Hong wrote that Kwok was adept at helping students feel at home in the physics department.

“He was constantly thinking about ways to reach out to students in order to relay his passion for physics, and to help them stay in the program in times of doubt,” Hong wrote. “He was personally invested in the experiences students had, and mentored individuals according to their needs after careful listening and observation.”

According to Whitaker, one of Kwok’s priorities as department chair was to improve the inclusivity of the physics department, taking into account students’ concerns about campus climate.

Kwok was also a skilled climber who often spent his weekends on outdoor expeditions. According to Pomona’s website, he died during a hiking trip in Kings Canyon National Park.

In addition to climbing, Kwok’s varied interests included food, Cantonese culture, classical music, and environmental sustainablity. Li recalled that Kwok would often recommend restaurants to her and offer her leftover Cantonese food.

Colin Brown PO ‘15, one of Kwok’s former advisees, said that he connected with Kwok over their shared Christian faith.

“I can see his love for God seep through in everything he does: his work as a professor, his research, his love for the outdoors, especially with his interactions and care for the students here,” Brown said.

“I want nothing more than to see his personality, his drive, his spirit, his love and compassion, just carried out and continued by the people that are coming after him and the people that have come in touch with him,” Brown said.

Natalie Hughes, physics department academic coordinator, described Kwok as “the link between faculty and students” in the department.

“He definitely had a rapport with students like no other,” Hughes said. “He also had personal relationships with everyone, and it’s amazing to see how many of them I’ve become aware of over the last few days, just sharing with everyone.”

The Kwok family will hold a memorial service for Kwok on Saturday, Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. in Bridges Hall of Music.

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