Sonoma State University
Department of Physics and Astronomy

An Interview with Dr. Poland in 2001
Jerilynn Cocchiara

I walked into Dr. Poland’s office, where he was busily working at his computer, full of excitement for the honor of interviewing him in order to write an article for the Physics Major. Dr. Poland retires this year, and we will not have the privilege of his wealth of experience as a teacher and administrator after the Spring 2001 semester. I asked about what kinds of changes he has seen, his favorite subjects to teach, what he will miss the most and least about his career, his vision for the future, what he’ll do with all the time off, and what advice he has for students and faculty. Here are the highlights of our discussion.

Dr. Poland got his Ph.D. in physical chemistry with a minor in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1963. It was there that he got his first taste of teaching as a teaching assistant in chemistry. He then did postdoctoral research work at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC and taught chemistry at Georgetown University before coming to Sonoma State College in 1965. Needless to say, he has seen many changes and been an integral part of the evolution of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Dr. Poland, Dr. Garrison Sposito, Dr. Gene Schaumberg and Dr. Bob Holmes were all hired at the same time into the physical science department. When he was asked if he would help establish the new physics department, he quickly chose physics over chemistry and joined Dr. Sposito in founding what would become the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Dr. Poland and many other faculty came to SSU because there was room to make changes and progress without waiting for older faculty to leave. In fact at the time he had the feeling that new faculty were hired at SSU with the expectation of bringing new ideas, the antithesis of larger, more established schools.

Since the 1960s Dr. Poland has been privileged to see growth in the popularity of the Department. Some of Dr. Poland’s favorite classes to teach have been the second and third semesters of introductory physics, and the accompanying labs. His specialty is the Physics 316 Modern Physics Lab, which no one else has taught for years! In fact he developed and wrote the experiments for 316, and wrote some quantum physics notes that are invaluable tools for students. Another of his favorite classes, for which he developed the early version, is the electronics course.

Dr. Poland also helped to establish some of the earliest relationships with industry in our area. He was very active in making purchasing decisions for equipment for the machine and wood shops. He got help from companies such as OCLI in the form of advice and information about the best shop equipment to buy and the best way to use that equipment. Now SSU and the Department enjoy the support and involvement of many high tech companies in Sonoma County.

When I asked Dr. Poland what he will miss the most, his eyes lit up as he smiled, leaned back in his chair, and said “The people of course, the students and faculty.” He talked about the students first, about how the students always bring a new challenge so teaching the same subject never gets boring. They bring fresh attitudes and ideas, and what a pleasure it is to watch students grow in their understanding. Then he talked about how much he’ll miss the faculty, especially within the Department. After all, he has known most of them for many years. They have brought fresh ideas and divergent views, but have learned to accommodate their differences and keep unproductive tensions to a minimum. This extends to the whole School of Natural Sciences, where faculty have shown interest in each other’s programs, recognizing the needs of other departments. On the subject of what he’ll miss the least he talked about the university’s administration evolving into a remote bureaucracy removed from instruction. For example almost all college administrators were formerly faculty, but now they are more business managers, lacking the hands-on student-relating experience. And at the state level there is a drift away from state-supported to “state-assisted” education, forcing schools to focus more on fund-raising than on what’s best for education.

For the future of education, Dr. Poland sees the virtual classroom on the verge of evolving, making education more widely available than ever before. But his advice to the student is very down to earth. He advises taking chemistry because a lot of applied physics is related to materials, and astrophysics uses chemistry a great deal too. He emphasizes that an important quality of a successful physics major is the desire to really understand the concepts of physics and the mathematics, and to troubleshoot experiments because this gives personal ownership of ideas and makes you feel like a “real” physicist. Learn to read formulas like sentences, understanding the symbolic conveyance of concepts in the same way words communicate ideas. And try to find something interesting in every course. It comes back to ownership, he says, and understanding in whatever way you feel comfortable.

As for Dr. Poland’s future plans, he is looking forward to just being a grandpa and spending more time with his wife and family. He has a daughter, a son, and two grandsons, Ethan, 3, and one-year-old Jared. Of course reading for pleasure has been elusive and many a fine book is waiting on the shelf, as well as fishing trips on the McCloud and Sacramento Rivers near Mount Shasta.

We’ll miss Dr. Poland’s wealth of experience both as a teacher and administrator; his natural sense of humor is always refreshing. He has been dedicated to this school and the students, helping to build a firmly established and popular Physics and Astronomy Department here at SSU. He deserves a big “Thank you!” So next time you go looking for Dr. Poland you might find that he’s traded his briefcase for a tackle box, and left a sign on the door: “Gone fishing.”