In the Spotlight
An Initial Conversation with Dean Sacha Kopp
This summer marked a major transition in the College of Arts & Sciences, as Sacha Kopp succeeded Nancy Squires as dean. Kopp’s appointment was announced June 18, and his term began August 11 after a 15-year academic career at the University of Texas at Austin where he served as Associate Chair of the Physics Department and later Associate Dean of the College of Natural Sciences.
Kopp holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics from the University of Chicago. He spoke with the college recently about his decision to come to Stony Brook and the opportunities for the College of Arts and Sciences.
What about Stony Brook attracted you to pursue the post as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences?
Kopp: In today’s debate about what is the value-added of a public research university, Stony Brook is well-positioned to add to this important dialog about how we can lead educational, scholarly, and creative opportunities for the state and the region that delivers real and tangible impact for the public we serve. Stony Brook is a premier research institution, which means that our faculty are not only able to share with students what is in the textbook, they are often in the textbook or are authors of the textbook. Students at Stony Brook experience a different education than just hearing about the current state of knowledge, they have a part in shaping the discoveries that become tomorrow’s textbooks. Universities like Stony Brook are not simply archives of knowledge, they are engines of innovation and creativity. That creativity and drive to inquire is what we teach our students and what forms the identity of the College of Arts and Sciences. The College is aided in its mission by the university’s partnership with Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor and its proximity to the technology, arts, and economic center of New York City.
In your visits with faculty and students here during the interview process, what impressed you about the college?
Kopp: I was most impressed with the community. The faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences see themselves not only as leaders in their disciplines, but also as part of the core of a liberal arts education. During my visits, they engaged in lively discussions about the future of education and the university. And they saw opportunities all across the university for collaboration and innovation. As one faculty member said, “our disciplines are at their best when they operate at their edges in collaborations with other fields.” I was also impressed with the students. Not only does Stony Brook offer access to higher education to students across New York, it welcomes some of the brightest students from around the world, from Africa and South America to Asia. That international mix of cultures enriches the educational experience at Stony Brook, just as the region around New York is enriched by the global cultures which find themselves here. New York, like my former home state of Texas, is a state which brims with optimism and aspiration. Stony Brook, its state university, is worthy of that legacy.
What goals do you have for the College and the Dean’s Office for your first year?
Kopp: The College of Arts and Sciences is very broad – 37 departments and centers ranging from physics to history to music. Stony Brook has a history of tackling problems that impact society, from climate change to health care to engineering. Our sciences in the college are part of that impact. Likewise the humanities and the arts in the college are part of that impact – they speak to the human condition and how we as individuals and society meet the challenges of today. President Stanley and Provost Assanis have set a bold vision through SUNY2020 to strengthen the faculty and course availability for students. In the college, we have the opportunity to recruit faculty, from the sciences to the humanities to the arts who impact society through their creative work.
Your scholarly research focused on the physics of elementary particles, the forces which govern their interactions, and the early evolution of the universe. Tell us what fascinates you about these research topics.
Kopp: My work is about history, the history of the universe. Particle physicists study particles at the smallest scale, the quarks and leptons that make up all the matter we see. Understanding these particles and the forces that act between them can teach us a lot about the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe. This is uncovering the earliest chronology of the universe. We weren’t there at the universe’s beginning, so we have to unlock this history from the “fossil record” of the particles which formed after the Big Bang. What’s always fascinated me about this study is the great beauty of the mathematics which describe the elementary particles – the fact that this mathematical language actually describes the natural world is remarkable to me.
How did you spend your summer?
Kopp: My family was quite busy packing up and moving from our former home town of Austin, Texas, to Long Island. We had one trip to visit family in my mother’s home country of Switzerland before our move. Since the beginning of August we’ve been in the area and getting the kids settled in for school.