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Big picture learning: Physics major Julian Kop ’24 studies the universe and his family background at PLU

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Student places a filter on a large telescope.

Image: Julian Kop ’23 is a physics major who spent last summer conducting research in PLU’s W.M. Keck Observatory. (photo by Sy Bean/PLU)

May 20, 2024
By Mark Storer
PLU Marketing & Communications Guest Writer

Julian Kop spent the summer of 2023 at Pacific Lutheran University looking up at the night sky and the stars. Kop earned an opportunity to do summer research with professors Sean O’Neill and Katrina Hay at PLU’s W.M. Keck Observatory, working some nights between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m., learning how to operate the equipment, including the 16-inch telescope, and talking about space. It was a culmination of a childhood passion for astronomy and astrophysics.

“My first class at PLU was a physics course with Dr. Bret Underwood,” said Kop. “I knew it was going to be difficult, and it was. But the new experience of a small class with a professor who is very good at one-on-one talks and working with individual students, was just great,” he said.

Kop’s interest in science grew when he took science courses through the Running Start program while he was a student at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma. As part of Running Start, Kop attended Tacoma Community College, where he majored in astronomy and took courses that interested him.

But by the time he got to PLU as a transfer junior, Kop was ready to take on a challenging schedule as an upper-division physics major. He knew how to succeed in college since he’d taken prerequisite classes and knew the difficulty of a STEM-focused schedule.

Kop set his focus on mastering his physics and STEM courses. But he also needed other classes to fill out his schedule. “I chose Introduction to Latino Studies,” he said. “My mom and her side of the family are Mexican American, and I wanted to learn more about my background.” These courses truly altered Kop’s path.

“Learning about my culture and my history was so eye-opening. I never got to learn about it really up to this point, and it was just something that led to me becoming a bit more conscious,” Kop said. “When I took Latino studies, that really opened the floodgates, learning the history and systemic issues.” Kop was so impacted he talked to Professor Emily Davidson, PLU’s director of Hispanic and Latino studies, about becoming a Latino studies minor.

“That J-Term, I had Dr. Maria Chavez for Latino politics, and learning more about those systemic issues and about marginalized communities really fulfilled something that I felt I was missing,” Kop said. “I could have minored in math or any science, but I also felt that I had an obligation to learn more about myself and other people.”

Kop will graduate this May, at 19, with a bachelor of science in physics and a minor in Latino Studies. He plans to attend graduate school in astrophysics and is aware of the rarefied air in which he is working.

“Latinos have been historically underrepresented in higher education for a lot of reasons,” Kop said. “They need a lot of support and mentors to get to higher levels of education and professional communities. In STEM fields, we are truly underrepresented.”

Kop was motivated by Professor Chavez, who told him that his example could inspire others. “I’ve seen that in my own family,” he said. “I’m doing things that my uncle, for example, has always dreamed about. I’ve realized that maybe a lot of people can be influenced by what I’ve done, and mentoring the next generation is something I’d like to do.”

Three people stand next to a computer. One of the students points to the computer screen.
Julian Kop ’24 and Jessica Ordaz ’24 in the observatory lab with Professor Sean O’Neill.