Williams College, Science Center lab

Unplanned Lessons: A Scientific Partnership

Unplanned Lessons: A Scientific Partnership

Williams physics professor Protik "Tiku" Majumder with students in his lab.
Williams physics professor Protik "Tiku" Majumder with students in his lab. Photo by Doug Plummer.

Professors impart knowledge; students receive it. That’s the basic contract at any institution of higher learning. But sometimes, without anyone being immediately conscious of it, the flow of learning reverses—and students teach something to their professors.

Advanced coursework isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for success in the research world—a lesson physics professor Protik “Tiku” Majumder learned from a rising junior who worked in his lab.

The young man had fewer courses under his belt than the more senior students he was working with that summer, but it was clear he had a knack for asking the right questions and looking at the big picture. “He was very comfortable talking about every aspect of the experiment, not just the little piece he had been involved with,” Majumder says. “He was able to synthesize the whole project. It’s a process most of us take a long time to grow into.”

Teachers of undergraduate physics tend to break things down into small pieces, each week assigning a problem set on a particular subject, for example. But Majumder’s experience with the young man—who as a senior was named the best undergraduate physics researcher in the country (in part for a half-hour talk he gave about his work in Majumder’s lab to the professional society granting the award)—made the professor realize he wasn’t being ambitious enough.

“I probably came to Williams thinking that having undergraduates involved in our research was more of an exercise in training them how to become scientists, part of our teaching role,” Majumder says. “If they really wanted to, they could go to grad school and become professional scientists.”

But “when you encourage students to start being scientists before they leave,” he adds, “with the right students, we can be very ambitious. We can treat them less like students and more like colleagues. We can approach more of a real scientific partnership where they’re publishing papers with us and they’re coming up with ideas that drive the work forward.”

This story was originally published in the Williams Alumni Review as part of “Unplanned Lessons,” by Zelda Stern.  (For a text-only version, click here.)