Julia Woodward: Strengthening Physics’ Pedagogical Community

While a student, Julia Woodward ’24 has been a teaching assistant and a Math Fellow for most of the time she has spent at Amherst — but teaching is only a fraction of her work in STEM at the college.

Julia Woodward: Strengthening Physics’ Pedagogical Community
Woodward grew up in the small suburb of Highland Park, NJ, a stone’s throw from Rutgers New Brunswick, where her father works in a field of geometry. Photo courtesy of Claire Beougher ’26.

Julia Woodward is a teacher. For an entire cohort of physics majors, not to mention scores of math students (97 this spring were taking a class for which she was one of three teaching fellows), Woodward might even seem to be primarily a teacher.

Of course, this would be a misconception. Woodward, who is graduating with a double major in math and physics and will start her Ph.D. in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, does not feel that teaching could ever be her only job. Instead, teaching represents one facet of a much larger pedagogical community that Woodward is invested in. This community encompasses research alongside teaching and, crucially, is made up of a group of people who can support each other completely. This means that, for Woodward, being a physics major at Amherst has required much more than taking classes. It means doing research and mentoring younger students and working to create a better department for the future.

On the North Shore of the Raritan

Highland Park, New Jersey is a small town on the Raritan River, close enough to the flagship campus of Rutgers University (which spreads across neighboring New Brunswick and Piscataway, where, coincidentally, I am from) to attract house-hunting groups of graduate students. Besides these students, the town is home to about 15,000 residents, including Woodward’s parents.

Woodward said that while her father, who is a math researcher working in symplectic geometry (“which is all I know [about it]”), was a source of encouragement in her and her older sister’s STEM pursuits, “that’s not to say they didn’t encourage different things.” Indeed, what Woodward remembers most from her experience at Highland Park High School is her time in Model United Nations, playing piano, and on the soccer team.

While Woodward loves soccer, and has played since she was nine years old, she remembers it first of all for the community it provided. “Soccer very much defined my high school experience in terms of, like, friends and social life,” she told me. “It was a really, really nice group of girls.”

This emphasis on relations between people is not limited to her sports teams. I even think it’s an essential aspect of how Woodward goes about being a person within educational institutions. Examples of this are widespread, but one, from the very end of her high school career, proved pivotal.

Woodward said that she didn’t really consider applying to Amherst until “maybe a month before the application was due.” She learned about the school through many of the normal avenues students use to fill out their applications, but was also exposed by a connection in her community. The mother of a Highland Park High alum who went to Amherst while Woodward was in high school happened to have been her sixth grade English teacher.

That English teacher “was raving about Amherst — she was like, ‘Amherst is amazing, you’re gonna get an excellent education, you’re gonna find a great group of friends,’” Woodward said. The certainty her English teacher had about the strength of the educational community, both academic and social, that Woodward would find at Amherst is partially why, when Woodward got in, she “[felt] like it wasn’t even that tough of a decision” to accept the college’s offer.

A Covid Digression

Woodward’s life, however, would not flow so smoothly from high school to college. Instead, as for all those who entered Amherst in the fall of 2020, she faced an entirely different kind of transition.

Every senior has their share of stories about the atmosphere on campus during the pandemic, whether about quarantining before even entering campus for the first time (“The first time I was here was when my parents dropped me off,” Woodward said. “We were crying in the alumni parking lot, and I had to go get tested.”) or struggling to find connection once on campus. The norms of social interaction for first-years were heavily policed. To party meant enduring freezing temperatures in obscure locations. To hang out in others’ rooms meant being constantly on edge, ready to fold into a closet at the sound of someone entering with disciplinary intent. To be a student here seemed to mean being watched — not to mention the looming threat of infection, which introduced a tension inherent to the senior class. How could a freshman successfully make friends and live well at college while also bearing responsibility for the health of a community that did not yet exist?

The question seems unanswerable, but by the spring semester, Woodward lived with people that she knew on the same floor as her and, critically, joined the crew team — which she called “the best decision I made that entire semester.” The crew team, she explained, “would do team events … and team stuff outside. So [that spring] was really great.” Woodward didn’t stick with crew — the immense time required to practice with the team meant that, in order to focus on teaching commitments, Woodward would leave the team during her sophomore year — but, in the middle of the hardest year of the pandemic, Woodward was able to find a team community that she could care for as it cared for her.

East of the Connecticut

Her extracurricular struggle was likely assuaged not only through the crew team, but also in her academic experience. From her very first math class, Woodward knew that she would major in the subject. Since even before she came to the college, Woodward had been excited by the strength of the math department, and taking her first math class only solidified what was never, in her mind, much of a decision to make. “I feel like there was never a conscious choice in my head where I was like, ‘I’m gonna be a math major,’” Woodward said. “I feel like I’m good at this. I enjoy it — I enjoyed it in high school — so it was pretty natural.”

In a bit of contrast, Woodward said that “physics was more of a decision.” She made it through not only the introductory sequence of classes before declaring a physics major, but the intermediate ones as well. “And then I was like, ‘Okay, might as well declare it.’”

Wait, so, why the Ph.D. in physics? Why not follow her father all the way to differentiable manifolds, or pivot and, as her parents encouraged her to do when she joined Model U.N., become a lawyer?

The answer, it seems, is twofold. One part explains why Woodward has ended up a solidly STEM student despite a variegated high school experience. The other is related more to how our relationships to our passions are often formed just as much by magic as logic.

Part One: On the Classroom

The first part of her decision to pursue a career in STEM does have familial roots. Woodward’s older sister is also a STEM Ph.D. candidate, and, as Woodward told me, “It’s easy to follow a path that you have seen before.” In higher education, as Woodward put it, there is a kind of “academic code” that she has been taught to navigate around. While she has found her professors supportive and able to help her where her knowledge is lacking, she also noted that “people come in with completely different knowledges about, for example, what even is office hours.”

In the physics department, Woodward’s attention to institutional inequality has motivated her to become a positive force for change. “Amherst’s physics department is nice,” Woodward told me, “but very, very male, and very white. I feel like they all recognize that, and that is big, but there is something to be said about just having representation — having someone you can see yourself in.”

Working alongside her professors and fellow majors not only means spending time with the other non-male physics majors in her year, but also means helping with several physics-related extracurriculars. Woodward is the event chair for Spectra, which hosts movie nights, grad school information sessions, teaches new majors about how to get involved with research in the department, and even hosts a department-wide formal every year. Additionally, Woodward co-chairs the Climate and Community Committee (CCC), a panel of over 20 students and a few professors that workshops ways in which the department can improve on being inclusive and accessible.

Through Spectra, Woodward is able to play an active role in building a community of friends in the physics major, where people who spend a lot of class time over the course of their academic careers together can find ways to connect alongside the classroom. Through the CCC, Woodward can advocate for positive change in the department whether in the panel’s re-evaluation of the Teaching Assistant (TA) program to better support TAs; their addition, from a professor’s proposal, of the “History and Society” requirement to the physics major; and rewriting both a form the department asks graduating seniors to fill out and the department norms.

Woodward’s commitment to a department that represents and supports its students extended to her search process as she looked for principal investigators (PIs, who usually run labs and advise graduate students) to apply to work with. “Ultimately,” she told me, “I did want to work for a non-man PI.”

Part Two: On Coolness

The second part of Woodward’s commitment to a life in STEM is a more direct answer to why she chose to apply to graduate school in physics despite remaining unsure about completing the major until it was nearly finished. “I feel like the reason that I decided to go to grad school in physics is because I really liked one specific area,” she said. That one specific area, a branch of particle physics dealing with a type of low-mass, largely non-interactive particle called a neutrino, happened to be something that no faculty at Amherst specialized in. Instead, a lucky summer spent doing a summer research experience with a professor at Columbia University led Woodward to fall completely for her work there — and it was by reading scientific literature on neutrino physics like what she did at Columbia that she found the PIs she applied to work with as a graduate student.

Woodward discovered a passion for neutrino physics while at a Research Experience for Undergraduates with Columbia University. Here, she presents on the research she conducted over the summer, which eventually led her to apply to the Ph.D. program she will be attending in the fall. Photo courtesy of Julia Woodward ’24.

So, when Woodward talks about why she’s going into physics, she doesn’t actually say a lot about her coursework. She said to me that “there’s a huge difference between liking your classes and then wanting to do it. Like, it never crossed my mind to go to math [graduate] school, even though I love my math classes. I find that material interesting, but I would never do math research.” This remains true for much of physics, she continued, but for particle physics specifically — which lies at the intersection of data science, machine learning, and statistics as applied to questions about the nature of particles — she “can see [herself] doing physics.”

Fundamentally, this motivation for pursuing neutrino physics is different in source from that which drives Woodward to attend class and work to make Amherst’s physics department a better place. “I think there’s an aspect of ‘oh, this is really cool,’” she said. There, again, is a difference “between finding something interesting and then finding something cool.”

There’s nothing about Woodward’s decision-making that feels calculated, like her professional life has been mapped out for years. Instead, she seems improvisational and determined. She has committed herself at Amherst wholeheartedly to making her academic environment as positive as possible — she told me that, besides classes and her social life outside of school, her largest time commitments at Amherst have been teaching first and physics department extracurriculars second. Physics wasn’t always the plan, though — it just turned out to be the most rad option.

“I find particle physics really cool,” Woodward said. “It’s at such a small, small scale when we smash particles together, but it also explains huge phenomena. We can see the Milky Way in terms of neutrinos.”