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ramon lopez

Ramon E. Lopez, PhD

My parents were from Puerto Rico. My father was an army officer surgeon and my mother was an elementary school teacher, and they always encouraged learning. My parents bought me a telescope for my tenth birthday. When the astronauts landed on the moon, I remember running back and forth between the television set and my telescope trying to see if I could catch a glimpse of the men on the moon. When I was in sixth grade my father left the military, and my family moved to Freeport, Illinois, where my father went in to private practice. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a physicist, sparked mainly by reading and the Apollo moon landings. I wanted to know how the universe worked. In ninth grade we moved outside of town, where I had to start a new school, Pearl City High School (PCHS), without any of my previous friends. At PCHS I had a wonderful science teacher, Jerry Heinrich, who loved science and loved to teach it to others. In 1974, Mr. Heinrich taught me to do a small amount of programming on an early computer he had. For me, science was always a large and important part of my life.
Technically, I never graduated from high school. Stemming mainly from my “outgrowing” PCHS, I decided to go to college early. In the fall of 1976, I entered the University of Illinois (UI) as a physics major. It was quite a step going from a high school of 200 students to a major university with 35,000 students. At first I did very poorly, as I felt significantly under-prepared for the challenges of college. In my first semester I earned under a C average. During the second semester I remember a particular calculus test. I had worked through many of the difficult problems at the end of the book, and I felt very prepared for the exam. I received a D, which was an eye-opening experience to me. I knew I wasn’t stupid; I had just studied stupidly. During that semester I finally learned to study wisely. I mastered the concepts rather than very specific problems, and I aced the next calculus test. Also during my first year, I studied very hard to fill in the gaps that were apparent from my lack of preparation. During my third semester at UI, I received straight A’s.
Though I was indisputably a physics major, I had other interests as well. In fact, if I wasn’t a physicist, I think I’d be a historian. During school I worked in the physics department setting up lecture demonstrations, which was a great job for a student. I could study, and I came into contact with many of the professors I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I also wrote articles about physics for the school newspaper as an undergraduate, which helped me immensely later in life. Though it doesn’t seem like it, scientists actually write for a living; so the experience of writing for the newspaper was invaluable. I was even encouraged to go to school and receive a Master’s in journalism. But I’d wanted a Ph.D. in physics since middle school, so I pursued that dream instead.
I received a National Science Foundation minority graduate fellowship to attend graduate school, where I knew I would study space science. I decided to attend Rice University in Houston for graduate school partly because I was tired of the cold winters in Illinois. At Rice, things were different than at UI. The graduate students in space science were a close knit group as opposed to the large department I’d come from. It was very difficult in graduate school, and all of us in the program had to become more serious and focused. I even thought about dropping out after the first year due to isolation from the other things that I loved, such as literature, history, art and philosophy, which I was used to being a part of at UI. However, I persevered; and in 1986 I received my Ph.D. in Space Physics.
Fresh out of graduate school, I began doing pure research in space physics at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL). I left APL because I wanted to put more effort into educational projects, which I did at the University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP). When I was 34, I became the Director of Education for the American Physical Society (APS); and for five years I ran all of the education programs for APS while still working half time at UMCP. However, after five years doing both jobs, I’d had enough. I wanted a faculty position. In 1999, I obtained a position at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I was appointed C. Sharp Cook Distinguished Professor of Physics and Chair of the Department of Physics at UTEP.