Lauren Novatne: Interview with Retiring Faculty


Lauren Novatne is an outstanding faculty member from the Physics department here at Reedley College who will soon be retiring at the end of this Spring 2022 semester. She has experienced a life full of challenges and strived through all adversity.


Being a faculty member for over 20 years, it seems inconceivable to think about a time when she was not an instructor. She was first inspired to get into teaching when her oldest son Mike went to kindergarten. At the time, she was a single mother on welfare and was going to college to become a nurse. She used to volunteer in the room, sitting in the back corner and helping out the teacher. Through this, she saw what education was doing for her son. She remembers thinking "I think I hear something" and knowing that her call would be in education.


Her Education Path


Sometime after that, she married her second husband, who used to work as a diesel tractor operator. When he was laid off he asked her what she wanted to do: travel around the world for a couple of years, start a business. She said she want to go back to school and get her degree. They both went into Electrical Engineering, what her husband wanted them to be. She disliked engineering and they both had disagreements regarding her career aspirations. Shortly after, she decided to end the marriage.


She decided to continue her education at Sonoma State University. When applying, she was indecisive about majoring in Mathematics or in Physics. She wanted to teach math since she loves the subject. But the pivot that made her go into Physics was that it would allow her to graduate in half of the time compared to the Math degree. So, she got her Bachelor's Degree in Physics.

Ms. Novatne with Kai Woehler

Ironically, her first job after receiving her B.S. degree was as an engineer in Microwave Defense Electronics. She recalls, "I hated it just as much as I knew I would, and so, when I got laid off, I was delighted." Afterward, she had other jobs such as managing a Taco Bell, being a Health Inspector in Monterey, first in land use and then in consumer protection. During her time in Monterey, she was introduced to Kai Woehler, Heisenberg's last Ph.D. student, at the Naval Postgraduate School. When they met, he asked her about her main intellectual interests, to which she responded: Physics, Tibetan Buddhism, and Jungian Psychology. Kai Woehler later became her mentor. Once she was ready to get into a Master's program, she opted for going to Fresno State University because of the school's passion for teachers.


It took her 11 years to complete her Bachelor's Degree. She first started in '78, had to stop going to school on multiple occasions, and completed her Bachelor's Degree in '89. She had many jobs between her Bachelor's and Master's Degrees and completed her Master's Degree in '99, which was also in Physics.


Teaching At Reedley College

Ms. Novatne when she first started at Reedley College (with her dog Ellis)

Ms. Novatne started teaching physics labs when she was still a graduate student in January of 1997. She then started teaching at Reedley College in August of 1997. In her first semester teaching at the college, she was an arithmetic instructor. She recalls that, at the time, she had no idea that the school colors were orange, black, and white. One day, some of her students were wearing the school colors and she said "I can't stand orange. It's like the ugliest color". Her students then started laughing, and when she asked why they were laughing, they responded "Our school colors are orange, black, and white. You know that, right?".


She continued teaching a few units of math the following semesters. During this period, Dr. Abbott became her mentor. When she graduated with her Master's Degree, she took a job teaching an introductory conceptual physics class at a high school in Tracy. Later, she received an email from Ms. Ortiz asking if she would like to apply to be a full-time faculty member at the college and told her to go meet Dr. John Heathcote. The day Ms. Novatne went for her interview, Dr. Heathcote was at the table and leaned forward "Hi, I'm John." At that moment she thought "He's my spiritual brother". The morning after the interview, she received a call in her classroom in the high school and was offered the job at Reedley College. She mentions that, at the time, she also had opportunities to teach at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sacramento City College, but decided to stay at Reedley College.


Extra Projects as Instructor


Apart from educating new generations of students, Ms. Novatne has worked on several projects. The first project was with a Professor from Sonoma State University, Enrique Izaguirre, who is originally from Argentina. The project consisted of photo calorimetry. They isolated bacterial proteins and irradiated them with a certain wavelength which caused the protein to change its structure. The intended application for this research project was to apply it to the proteins in the rods and cones in the hope of being able to return vision to people with blindness.


Ms. Novatne with a rocket for "The Rising Data Project"

The second project was in collaboration with NASA and Cal Tech. She was the only Community College instructor in this project and was invited by her best friend Lynn Cominsky who teaches Physics at Sonoma State University. The project consisted of acquiring data from a small portion of the sky in the infrared portion of the spectrum. They processed 3000 data points and came up with 60 candidates for young stellar objects and made graphs for each of them.


The third project was another project in collaboration with NASA and Lynn Cominsky. In this project, called "The Rising Data Project", students launched rockets that had electronic payloads built by them. The rockets took data about atmospheric pressure, maximum height, speed, and magnetic field. Reedley College participated in a pilot program. They taught a class and developed class material. However, this pilot program got to an end due to a drop in enrollment.


Plans for Retirement


When asked what she will miss the most, she responded that she will miss the people. "I love the people here. The mixture of people and cultures here is fantastic really". As for her plans for retirement, she said she plans to stay here for a year and "wait and see what pops up". She would like to spend her time volunteering in "The Cat House on the Kings", a local pet adoption center. In addition, she wants to volunteer at her church's food bank. When talking about her church she mentioned, "It's all about love. That's what it is for me." For other future plans, she has also thought about writing a science fiction book telling her life story in metaphor.

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