When asked why she is passionate about physics, Sonia Paban looks down and takes a long pause. “Physics explains many phenomena using very few concepts. It is the universality. You can explain the motion of the moon with the same equations that you use to explain how a car is moving,” says Paban, associate professor of physics at The University of Texas at Austin.
Paban was recently inducted into UT’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers for her active learning approaches and for encouraging critical thinking.
“I think we all seek to understand the world around us, to make sense of our existence,” she continues. “Throughout history, people have made sense of existence with all sorts of tales or narratives. But to me, explaining natural phenomena using scientific concepts is fulfilling. It has its own intrinsic beauty.”
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Paban grew up in Bossòst, a rural town in Catalonia, Spain. Her mother, a seamstress and shopkeeper, and her father, an electrician, sent Paban and her sister to boarding school in the provincial capital of Lleida to receive a better education than what was available in their hometown. Paban, a first-generation college student, said that while her parents, who were born during the Spanish Civil War, did not have the opportunity to complete their education, they were very smart and curious. At the University of Barcelona, Paban discovered through a physics class — required to become a certified high school teacher, which was her initial plan — how much she liked and was good at the subject.
Paban first came to Austin in 1989 thanks to a Fulbright fellowship, which also provided an etiquette manual on American customs. She says it was a culture shock coming from Spain, where people are often expressive and greet each other with touch. But Paban grew to appreciate Austin. At UT she met her future husband, mathematics professor Daniel Freed, with whom she has two children. Through her Fulbright fellowship, Paban did research related to the Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator complex that at the time was planned to be the world’s largest. The project was directed by UT physics professor Roy Schwitters, and nearly 15 miles of tunnel were constructed near Waxahachie, Texas. Due to budget issues (nearly $2 billion was spent), Congress canceled the project in October 1993.
Paban’s research now focuses on cosmology, which incorporates physics and astronomy; quantum field theory; string theory; and the early universe. “When we say ‘early universe,’ we are talking a fraction of a fraction of a second at the beginning of the universe,” she says. As a high energy physicist, Paban studies the interactions of “the tiniest objects that we know.”
She adds: “What’s amazing is that over the last 100 years, we have learned how [the universe] has evolved. And particularly in the last 20 years, we have learned a lot about how the universe was when it was about 380,000 years old. What I’m doing is studying the very beginning.”
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Paban tries to memorize her students’ names, arriving to class early at the beginning of the semester to chat informally and get to know them. She facilitates active learning through exercises, demonstrations and questions, asking students to make predictions and discuss answers to problems with their classmates — which instills confidence and critical thinking. “I show videos to my students that demonstrate the power of physics.”
To benefit all students, Paban often adjusts her teaching methods. Rather than grade on a curve, she emphasizes a “growth mindset.” Those who make an effort through attendance and homework have the option to replace their midterm grade with the final grade if the final grade is higher.
After midterm exams, Paban sends email messages to students who performed below average, offering to meet and identify what went wrong. One student wrote to Paban: “After failing the first test, I felt completely defeated until I came to your office hours and you encouraged me to continue to work hard. … Your class has been one of the most challenging for me but also the most rewarding because you not only taught me physics and how to problem solve, you reminded me to believe that hard work will lead to success.”
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Paban’s nomination packet for the Academy of Distinguished Teachers includes a significant section on diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2019, undergraduate student groups in physics, mathematics and astronomy requested a more diverse group of learning assistants and teaching assistants in terms of gender and race. Paban listened to the students’ needs, asking professors to reach out to underrepresented students to apply to become learning assistants. She asked the Department of Physics to create a training program to support students interested in becoming learning assistants. Thanks to her efforts, diversity has increased among this group. Paban was also actively involved with Gender Minorities in Physics, mentoring students and selecting female-identifying physicists to speak as part of a lecture series.
“People have lots of stereotypes about what a physicist is or is not,” Paban says. “As a woman, especially as a woman who didn’t grow up in an academic family, I had a feeling of not belonging sometimes.”
When Paban became an assistant professor at UT in 2000, she became the second female among 55 professors in the Department of Physics; currently, the number of female professors is 10 out of 52.
On organizing the lecture series that brought top female scientists to UT, Paban says, “I think bringing out these very accomplished women shows to the students that there is a wide spectrum of private lives among the successful women physicists.”
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“Very often when I read the news, I see that many people reject the lessons of science, and I tell myself, ‘We didn’t do a very good job teaching science to these people in school.’ I think that in other societies, science is not a matter of opinion. You have to test hypotheses with experiments, and the outcome is not subject to opinion,” Paban says.
Her thoughtfulness and dedication are evident in her desire to keep improving as a professor and her belief that UT students can succeed. “I think everyone who is admitted to this university has the ability to understand the physics concepts that we teach in entrance-level classes in our department,” Paban says. “Education serves a social purpose as well. I grew up with a poor background, and education opened the doors to a different life.”