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Q&A with Professor Rojas, 2015′s My Last Lecture Award Recipient

Randall Rojas’ teaching ability may inspire students in a way beyond the scope of most instructors at UCLA, but the decor in his Bunche Hall office is as unexciting and ordinary as most professors’: a shelf of books, a metal filing cabinet, a desktop monitor. Awarded this year’s My Last Lecture Award, the only faculty award chosen by students, Rojas is famous for his varied academic interests: from pursuing a doctorate degree in physics at Drexel University to teaching statistics, cosmology and currently, economics. His biography states he enjoys canyoneering and spending time with his family, and it also gives an overview of his educational pathway from beginning college at 15 to the completion of his doctorate degree at Drexel University.

At the same time, biographies don’t capture everything. Curious to learn more, I sat down for a quick chat with professor Rojas to go beyond what a quick skim of the My Last Lecture page could gleam. How did this man who moved easily between the subjects of physics and economics, but still made time to be an excellent teacher, come to be?

Is there anything about you that you feel isn’t accurately represented in your autobiography? I am actually very accessible, and I feel like students don’t realize that until they come to office hours. With 400 students in a course, it can be very difficult to feel comfortable (in speaking to me). I do ask and do try to remember names. Students are often surprised when I remember little details, like them getting their wisdom teeth removed the week before. All in all, I am quite approachable and actually pretty silly. Maybe they get some of that from class too? (In class), I try to not be as serious and make for a relaxed learning environment.

Who was your memorable lecturer throughout your long university education? How has that impacted you? Well, I had two. First, I had a professor (at Universidad de Costa Rica), Antonio Madrigal. He always believed in distilling complex things to the core and presenting things in a very simple fashion. I think it’s a great thing to be able to do this, and it’s not always easy. I’ve definitely inherited his teaching style. I find myself teaching a lot of different concepts like econometrics and time series. (With Madrigal),  I saw the value and beauty in bringing things down to a simplified level.

In a more comical fashion, his approach was to make it seem like something seemed fun and light-hearted, even if the concepts were incredibly difficult. Adding a humor element distracts the students and then they can enjoy the process of learning more. In graduate school, my quantum mechanics professor, Lorenzo Narducci, (at Drexel) taught me that you truly need to have a passion for teaching. He was an expert in the field, but he also had a passion for teaching. He cared about every single student, showing genuine concern for students. It was really an eye opener for me. I could go to him and ask any question, and he wouldn’t trivialize them.

How do you feel about your shift from a focus on physics to economics? Do you still feel like physics is part of your life? I’ve tried to reconcile what I’m doing now with my love for physics. If I don’t understand something in economics, I have to translate it into physics for it to make sense, as strange as that sounds. In that regard, even if I don’t teach physics,  I exercise it everyday. Just because you don’t teach it, the training and skills I have learned  still help me daily.

I never would have imagined I would be teaching economics today. Back then, I thought that my lifelong passion would be physics. As you grow older, you eventually realize that things happen differently, and that you really have to be open and flexible to those changes. I saw this as an opportunity to teach new material. This reconciling (of my interests) is where my research lies currently, the intersection of physics and economics: econophysics. (Econophysics is the application of physics theory to financial markets.)

Dr. Rojas gives his “last lecture” on Tuesday, May 12, in De Neve Auditorium, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are free through the Central Ticket Office, but seating is limited. To read a recap of Rojas’ lecture, pick up a copy of Wednesday’s Daily Bruin.

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