Student Spotlight: Gunnar Jaffarian and Kristen Darnell

Gunnar Jaffarian and Kristen Darnell, both physics graduate students and leaders in the physics club at SJSU, have found their stride in research and community-building despite the pandemic.

Gunnar Jaffarian headshot

Gunnar Jaffarian, graduate student, physics program

“The community at SJSU betters everyone around them,” says Jaffarian. “I made it a point to join the physics club on day one because I wanted to join that community. During the first semester, they helped me feel like others knew my struggles and led me to resources that could help.

“Because I wanted to give back, I was elected to a leadership position in January – right before the pandemic started. The clubroom became empty because of the virus, so the other two leaders, a friend, our faculty advisor, and I put together a virtual clubroom [using Discord] so we could maintain the community and help people who needed it.”

Darnell, who worked with Jaffarian to establish this virtual space, says the Discord server allowed members of the Physics Club to continue their collaboration online. The department even made it official. According to Jaffarian, the virtual clubroom is used daily for a variety of purposes, from organizing study sessions to posting memes. “The faculty in the department are incredibly supportive and many have joined the server with us,” he says.

Both Darnell and Jaffarian credit their departmental faculty for offering sustained support of their academic endeavors.

Kristen Darnell headshot

Kristen Darnell, graduate student, physics program

“My experience at SJSU has been great for so many reasons,” says Darnell. “I came into the physics master’s program with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and only a vague idea that I wanted to do interdisciplinary research. Within my first month here, the dean of science, Dr. Kaufman, took the time to chat with me about his research. Because of that conversation, I was nominated for a research fellowship in Poland with one of Dr. Kaufman’s collaborators. There, I was so excited to learn about the world of Astrochemistry and attend a seminar series with other grad students in the field.”

“Since then, the department has found funding for me to attend another seminar series in Europe. I’ve been able to listen to Dr. Kress speak at Astronomy on Tap. When the Physics department needs to hire new faculty, they request the opinions of the graduate students and listen to them,” says Darnell. 

Jaffarian says his professors helped him with his resume and public speaking skills earlier this year. “Then, I scored a summer internship at a laser production company,” he says. “It ended up becoming a virtual internship, but the company offered me a full-time position when it was over because of what I learned. This is a difficult time for everybody, but the people at SJSU really pushed me to be the best I could be. Between the faculty and the student organizations, there was always somebody who could give guidance or resources.”

Darnell’s thesis advisor, Dr. Madura, is a great example. Dr. Madura encouraged Darnell to connect with a faculty member at Benedictine College who has since become her collaborator. 

“I’m helping to create the reaction network for water inside dust grains in the interstellar medium,” Darnell says. “At SJSU, I have grown so much, not just in my academic knowledge, but also in my relationships with other scientists.”