Tanya Lai loves physics and wants more people, especially women, to share her passion.
She has her work cut out for her. According to a 2005 study published by the American Institute of Physics, women make up about half of the high school students taking physics, but less than one-fourth of the college students receiving bachelor’s degrees in the field.
A middle-school teacher inspired Lai (Curry ’11) to pursue science. When Wen-Shi Lee walked into Lai’s first science classroom at the DeKuang Girls’ High School in Tainan, Taiwan, he told the class, “Science is the language of nature, and if you want to understand nature, you have to speak its language.”
Lai took his advice to heart. She studied science in high school and earned her bachelor’s degree in physics and theoretical mathematics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Now a second-year graduate student in science education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, she plans a career teaching high school physics. As a teacher, she hopes to encourage young women to continue studying physics in college, possibly becoming secondary school physics teachers themselves.
As an international student at UVA, Lai pays out-of-state tuition for her two-year master’s degree program—more than $10,000 a year in addition to room and board, books, and other expenses. To help Lai pay her bills, her mother, Su-Huei O, works full time as dean of general affairs at the National Kaohsiung First University of Science and Technology in Taiwan as well as several part-time jobs.
Lai also works to cover her education costs. This past summer, she taught a course on optics for gifted and talented middle-school students in the University’s Summer Enrichment Program and courses on physics and calculus for disadvantaged high school students participating in Upward Bound.
When Lai learned she would receive the James M. Cooper and V. Shamim Sisson Scholarship, she was thrilled. “This really reduces the financial stress on me and my mother,” she said. “We won’t have to take out additional bank loans to cover my bills.”
The fellowship is funded by two former UVA faculty members, James M. Cooper, professor emeritus and former dean of the Curry School of Education, and his wife, V. Shamim Sisson, who retired in 2006 as senior associate dean of students and director of the Office of Student Life.
Both Cooper and Sisson came from modest family backgrounds and were able to attend college thanks to scholarship assistance. “I couldn’t have gone otherwise,” Cooper said. “My family couldn’t have sent me.”
Cooper and Sisson have decided to repay the benefits they received by helping others. “We wanted to create a graduate fellowship because we believe deeply in the power of education,” Sisson said. “If you’re looking for a place where you might want to put money to get results, there’s hardly a better place than education.”
They have chosen to fund their scholarship through two types of gifts — a planned gift that names UVA’s Curry School of Education as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy covering the couple, and a ten-year pledge of annual gifts. In this way, they are able to both increase the eventual value of their gift through planned giving and see the benefits of their gift while alive.
Lai is grateful for their help. After graduating, she plans to teach high school physics in the United States. She disagrees with the idea that physics is a complicated subject suited only for elite students. “It really shouldn’t be that difficult to understand physics because it’s based on real life experience,” Lai said. “I feel a sense of satisfaction when I can help people understand it.”