University News

Sohn remembered for physics passion, supportive character

PhD students, undergrads laud Sohn’s dedication to others, warm spirit, academic talent

By and
University News Editor and Metro Editor
Monday, April 6, 2015

A few weeks before he died, Hyoun Ju Sohn GS emailed the students in his physics lab and told them not to be too hard on themselves. The email was characteristic of the support Sohn gave to his friends, colleagues and students.

Sohn died March 31. He was 25 years old.

Sohn completed his bachelor of arts degree at Columbia in 2013. “He was one of the top physics students in his year,” wrote Jeremy Dodd, senior lecturer of physics at Columbia and a teacher for whom Sohn was a teaching assistant.

Sohn became a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics in fall 2014. He was a teaching assistant for the PHYS 0060: “Foundations of Electromagnetism and Modern Physics” lab this semester.

Both at Columbia and at Brown, Sohn was known for his interest in condensed matter physics, specifically spintronics — a growing field with the potential to improve technology by using electron spin in computational applications.

He was always able to distill the essence of a concept into a short phrase, said Mary Hadley GS, who was in Sohn’s cohort in the doctoral program.

Hadley met Sohn during the pre-orientation program. “We bonded immediately — I guess because we were both silly,” she said. He would text her pictures of his cats to cheer her up.

“He was a well-known guy,” Hadley added.

There are only 15 or 16 first-year PhD students in the department, and all of them take the same classes their first year. The cohort initially got together to work on problem sets but then started to hang out outside of class, said Will Taylor GS, who was Sohn’s lab partner last semester.

“He enjoyed spontaneity and whimsical fun,” Taylor said, recalling a video Sohn posted on Facebook of him singing karaoke to “The Lion King.”

Sohn was also a talented artist who enjoyed imitating famous artists’ styles, Hadley said.

In addition to his artistic interests, Sohn was also devoted to experimental physics.

“He was a really committed experimentalist” whose interest in new technological applications of spintronics research led him to “spend hours in the lab trying to get things right,” Hadley said.

Sohn was always willing to help fellow classmates with their work, Taylor said. When Taylor and Sohn could not find the answers as lab partners last semester, “We’d just laugh it off (and say) ‘I guess that’s not going in the lab report,’” Taylor said.

When Sohn struggled to understand a topic, he would “find several different textbooks and commit himself to understanding it,” Taylor said. Naturally talented, he “could effortlessly do well on exams.”

As a doctoral candidate, Sohn devoted much time to assisting in the classroom. “He loved teaching,” Hadley said, adding that Sohn frequently talked about the activities he did with the undergrads in his lab. This year, Sohn took them to an art show, Hadley said.

Casey Rhyne GS, who shared an office with Sohn, said Sohn was always available to talk. “He was an extremely caring individual. He always wanted to help when he could,” Rhyne said.

“He was always cheerful. … he always brightened our moods,” Rhyne added.

Many took to social media to share their memories of Sohn last week.

On her blog, Sarah Hsu ’17 praised Sohn’s personal investment in his students, calling him a “beloved physics lab TA.”

Telling his students they are “brilliant, excellent and beautiful,” Sohn was “nothing but kindness and encouragement,” Hsu wrote. The little things he did were the most supportive, she added.

On a report, Sohn “wrote that he appreciated my partial derivative charts and managed to use seven smiley faces in four pages,” Hsu wrote.

“Hyoun Ju was basically the greatest physics lab TA to have ever walked Barus and Holley,” she wrote.

Most of all, Sohn was known for being an incredible support to all he knew. “He gave unconditionally,” Hadley said. “He always had time to listen to his friends.”

“He was always thankful even for the smallest favor, always willing to spend time to help his friends, always concerned about others and always smiling,” wrote David Gabriel Maselli GS, one of Sohn’s classmates, in an email to The Herald.

“Hyoun Ju was one of the people who made the grind of doing a PhD worthwhile,” Hadley wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. She said she remembered thinking that “even if it took me seven years to finish my degree, at least I would have all that time to hang out with Hyoun Ju.”

A previous version of this article misstated that Sohn was a teaching assistant for PHYS 0040: “Basic Physics.” In fact, he was a TA for PHYS 0060: “Foundations of Electromagnetism and Modern Physics.” The Herald regrets the error.