Kiel, Physicist, IL
Kiel is a high energy physicist trying his best to describe the mysterious and intricate patterns of nature at the smallest distance scales. He finished his PhD at Stanford University in 2015, and there's no way he would have made it through without his six amazing nephews and nieces always reminding him to look at the world with wonder and excitement. Kiel is currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Theory Department. Kiel is a Catalyst for RE-ENVISIONED and was interviewed by his Mentor Catalyst (and friend), Erin.
Our first question is for you to take 30 seconds to think of a child you know and care about – think about who they are and they’re personality, what makes them unique. When you’re ready you can tell me about them.
Both my older sister and older brother have kids, all my nieces and nephews. They’re all awesome but since I have to choose I’ll think of my sister’s second son, Ronan: he’s the second of three boys. She lives in Idaho, a small college town called Moscow, which is the liberal heart of Idaho. He’s grown up there his whole life.
He and his brothers are close and play together all the time – they’re so cute. I went back for Christmas and watched them play video games together and they just have their own world and dynamics. I watched them playing together on a video game that only has two controllers. The oldest was trying to dictate and make things fair…and also he was trying to get the most time on game. Ronan is learning to advocate for himself and he’s also used to listening to his older brother. They know they have to include their younger brother, so he’s gotten super good at video games because they older ones want to get through the levels and when it’s his turn they give him 1:1 coaching. Ronan is the quietest of the three, very quiet and contemplative. He’s about 10 and I want to say he’s going into third grade.
So when you think Ronan all grown up – let’s say he’s in his 30s – what is it you want for him, what would be a good life?
I would like him to have lots of opportunities. I don’t know what he’s going to grow up to be – he’s interested in lots of things. I would like him to have the opportunities to find out what he wants to do in this world and feel like he can do it.
Also, Moscow, Idaho, is a great place to start out and go into the world: it’s a small town and he has lots of people who support him. His mom is amazing and his grandparents are there. I hope he has a life where he continues to get that support wherever he goes.
I hope he has a chance to go to university – U of Idaho is a great school – but he loves big cities – he likes to go to downtown and look at the buildings. He’s told me he’s a big city kid living in a small town. I hope he goes to a university in a bigger city and see what that means for him and have that experience.
I hope he’s happy and has a community of people he loves and supports and has the opportunities to do things and create the world he wants to live in. And I hope he lives by me so I can see what he’s up to.
Spoken like a good uncle.
I just want him to invite me to his college parties.
That’s creepy :)
So, you said, “I hope he’s happy and has a community of people he loves and supports and has the opportunities to do things and create the world he wants to live in”. Is the rest of it after “happy” what you think it takes to be happy or, if not, what does it take to be happy?
The times in my life I’ve been happiest it’s related to having communities or a community of people. I think I’m happiest when everyone in my life forms one community and it’s not separated – but in all spheres of your life having a group of people you feel comfortable with and they care about you and you them.
So being at a workplace where they value you and what you’re contributing and you also value your coworkers and what they do. Then, having friends that care and support you – friends who are interested in creating experiences together: having people you’re creating experiences together and you’re building on that relationship. In your relationships you should create more interesting and value-filled experiences together. I think that’s happiness.
When I think of Ronan he does have it now with his brothers and friends. When I think of growing up in Moscow I have these idyllic memories of being there because it’s a great little community and if he can, when he gets older, transfer that into his work, family, and friends – I hope he has the same kind of community in all spheres of his life.
Is there anything you worry about for him creating this life?
I don’t know, life is a crapshoot. I know I’m very lucky to have made it through to where I am today so you can’t help but worry. You look back and think of the moments you got lucky and made a good or bad decision. You can’t help but feel nervous for the young people who still have to go through all that. I think he has a great mom, community, and school – so I don’t lose sleep worrying about him.
I think he’s a pretty shy kid. He reminds me a lot of myself at my age, which is maybe why I was thinking of him - a little more vulnerable, or a bit more afraid to put himself out there than his brothers are. So I hope that’s something he has opportunities to overcome and is encouraged to be happy sharing who he is and feel confident about himself and what he has to offer to people.
I hope he finds that security and sense of self and identity and feels confident sharing it with people. He’s super curious and interested in the world.
I hope he has experiences going into junior high and high school to be happy and accept who he is and feel free to put himself out there. And not feel like he has to be shy and guarded. I hope he doesn’t have experiences that reinforce it the other way – that would be tough and hard – junior high and high school are hard. A bunch of kids who don’t know what they’re doing to each other trying to deal with all their stuff and you don’t understand what others or yourself are going through.
What would, ideally, be the role of school in getting him there?
I’ve thought a little about what went well with schooling for me and what didn’t. I know everyone’s experience is unique – I’m not in education and I haven’t spent much time thinking about education – so I can only look at a few things and how they affected me. But when I think about what and how – I feel happy with my life right now – and when I think of what I got from school that was important for me to get here, there are three things I got from school that shaped how I see myself and the world.
The first thing is – I was lucky, I was in schools and specifically, in classrooms where I was expected to succeed. I was expected to be good at stuff and when you’re expected then it’s easier to feel like, “oh yeah I should”. I was never in a situation where people didn’t expect I would succeed and do well.
Actually, once I was in that situation. Maybe this is why I think it’s such a big factor. I have a twin brother – I’m a physicist and he’s doing his PhD in math – so we’re totally different ;) In kindergarten we were in different classes in Nova Scotia – we moved to a bigger city and smaller school in first grade and were in the same class and we had learned different things in Kindergarten, and I learned that Sean was good at math and I was not. One of the things we did in our first grade class is learn math problems – everyone would sit on the carpet and the teacher would write the question on the board – something very simple in first grade – 1+5 = … then the first person to raise their hand with an answer won a point. I was in the same class with my brother and he had learned some of that and I hadn’t so I had no idea what was going on but my brother was the best in the class at it. So at the end of every session of doing that the class would vote on who was the best that day – and everyone voted for my brother because he was the best.
At that point in my life I thought, “okay, I’m not good at math. That’s Sean’s thing.” But then we went into the next grade, the teacher knew Sean was good at math and just assumed I was also good with math. More than that, she put Sean in a different advanced group and I got lumped into that. From then on, I was good at math. If Sean hadn’t been there it could have been different.
From then on – as of second grade – I was a good student and was going to succeed and that was the expectation. It affects how people see you. Not only do they expect performance, they see you through that lens. It affects so much of how people treat you when something goes wrong or you make a mistake – and people who think about you as someone who succeeds and a good student then the way they react to it is so different.
I went on a school trip my senior year of high school – we brought a bottle of vodka on the trip and drank it in the hotel room. I threw up everywhere. We actually didn’t get caught at the time even though we had to throw away a blanket. But then we bragged at school about it. The normal school policy would be to expel kids for doing that – drinking on a school trip was big. But we barely got punished – I had detention for like a week. When I had to go talk to the principal – so much of it was, “we know you’re a good student but…” And so I was a good student who made a mistake. The goal was to get me through that and teach me not to do that again.
If I had gotten expelled or suspended that could have delayed my graduation. If they didn’t care and they made a mistake people make and instead saw me as a troubled person we need to punish it could have been very different. I had teachers who cared at all their students but there’s lots of moments where I was one of the students who fit in the normal mode – the things I did well and was proud to do were the stereotypical good student things and this affected how people think about you.
So it works two ways – on you and how you think of yourself, but also when you make a mistake how people see your story is different.
Those are great – what are the other two things?
The most important lesson I learned is that you can learn something that seems impossible or really hard. You can see something and it seems like you’re never going to be able to do this. To have positive experiences where you see something like that and you’re guided and helped and then don’t even understand why it looked hard in the first place anymore.
It happens so much in life that you are confronted by something big and difficult and it can be overwhelming - but if you have experiences from school that have helped you work through big and difficult things, then you say, “this is big but I know what happens now – it looks hard, you try, and you figure it out”.
It’s another thing of how you see yourself. Everyone has this ability to do really hard things – but it’s another thing to know that and believe it.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But to have that confidence you have to have those experiences. When I look at what I got from school, being guided through what seems impossible is one.
Another formative thing, it’s also when I was in the “I think I’m bad at math stage” in kindergarten. I was on my own walking through the hall to the bathroom and I have a vivid memory of looking through the open door to a third or fourth grade class and seeing them doing multiplication. The teacher was shouting out problems like 9x6 and students were just rapidly giving her the answers. I started crying because I thought I would never be able to do that, that school was going to be impossible. I was in tears when I got back. I was so scared I was going to have to do that. I had no concept of what it meant to be in school for three years and how different it will feel – nor that I didn’t even have to worry about it yet. I was just so scared – I just had a feeling of dread that in school I was going to do something I can’t do. Then you get to third grade and you can do it and it’s easy.
When I got to third grade I actually still remembered this experience I had – it blew my mind that something like that had seemed so impossible to me and now was so easy. It’s such a silly little experience but it clicked for me at that moment that really hard things are just a person doing it and I’m a person and if you have time to attack it and do it then something that seems hard you can do. I think from that moment on it changed how I saw myself and when I was scared or something seemed impossible or hard I always thought of myself as someone who can do that.
What’s the third one?
It’s something maybe I didn’t get so much from school, but I did a lot of computer programming. My older brother and my dad were really into computer programming so they set up the computer and started teaching me when I was 8 or 9 years old. It was in the time that I started on computers that were text based and used DOS. The programs the professionals were using weren’t much more sophisticated than what you can write yourself. You could write programs that were very similar in ways to professional programs someone made. And this idea that the world you live in is created by people who are just like you or that you can create the things in your world – that was a really valuable experience for me: the things in the world are created by people and I can be one of them.
The useful lesson was that you’re not just consuming a world created by other people – you’re living in a world that you’re creating and what you create is just as good as what other people are creating. That really affects my life – feeling like you’re creating parts of the world with people around you, not just living in a world created by others.
Do you think schools will do these things for all kids?
I think there are lots of kids who think they’re not good at the right things and not good at what’s expected of them and not valued for what they are good at. I don’t know how I would have gotten that experience if I hadn’t been good at the right things. I got lucky a few times and had the right preparation at the right time. But if you’re not good at math or spelling then it didn’t seem like the kids in my classes were being told they were succeeding or good.
It’s a self-reinforcing thing. You take someone not immediately good at it as the evidence they’re not going to succeed and expect them not to. I was valued for a very narrow set of things about myself and I was lucky to be valued for them. But if you don’t have those things that make you a good academic student then you’re not valued.
Sometime teachers would even treat you very differently than other kids and it made me feel awkward – “okay, I’m good at math…I’m not a saint.” I felt I was being overvalued compared to other people because I fit the mold. There are other ways to value people and ways to be a good human being- ways that I wasn’t good at, like being socially skilled. Schools should reinforce and tell you it’s a good thing whatever your strengths…”you’re a good student because of this”. And it’s not a zero sum game – if I value someone because they’re good at noticing when their friends are unhappy and noticing them, it’s not going to make them feel like they shouldn’t learn math – actually it’s going to help them feel like a good person and then be able to do well at math as well.
When you think of your life, what has been an empowering learning experience for you?
School is very good at reinforcing this good academic student view I had of myself – so it really reinforced that – but I didn’t see myself as someone who had anything else to offer. I’m lucky to have had any positive reinforcement from school, but I felt like the things that I had to offer in school was it. And in college I kept on that track. So actually the first time I really felt like maybe I could value things in myself other than just being very good at math was that I took a weeklong workshop at the design school while in graduate school for physics at Stanford.
It was an incredibly rewarding week – it was spending a week seeing yourself as someone who can solve all types of problems – in your life, in the world around you. They teach you to see yourself as someone who can play creatively in the world and enjoy that. The whole week is structured to give you that positive experiences and interactive role. It was only after going through that that I started reflecting on why I had previously thought of myself as being able to act on the world in a way limited to my academic pursuits. Now I feel confident interacting in the world and creatively creating the world around me, not just when working on a physics paper. That’s when I started reflecting on the experiences that made me feel that way about my academic pursuits but not about anything else in my life.
That was one of the most empowering experiences. It also relates to what I was saying earlier that schools can do a good job of valuing these traditional academic things but there are lots of other ways to be a very amazing, self-actualized, inspiring human being that maybe aren’t valued as much. The course changed how I think about what schools should do – they should be encouraging people to feel confident in creatively interacting and creating the world around them. Schools should be about coaching and supporting kids in their entire interaction with the world and not just some narrow subset of it. I think feeling this way makes me better at everything, including physics. That’s one very valuable learning experience that I got from very post-K-12 schooling and was lucky, I was at Stanford and it’s a unique experience. But it’s something I wish everyone could have.