The Rocket Scientist Next Door

The end of the quarter is especially busy for everyone living on campus. Tali is no exception. He’s going to his last class meetings, preparing for final exams, and doing some independent research. He is even working on his big summer plans for a rocket launch. You see, Tali isn’t an undergraduate student. He is a tenured professor who has chosen to live on campus. Even in the most hectic stretch of the academic term, he still makes time to hang out with students, several of whom he recently hosted for dinner before going to see an opera with them.

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Enectalí (“Tali”) Figueroa-Feliciano is the Faculty-in-Residence (FIR) for the Bobb-McCulloch-Goodrich residential community, which has over 400 residents across its buildings. He lives in a spacious apartment in the recently-renovated Goodrich House with his wife, Barbara, their son, Ignacio, and their dog, Luna. Living on campus, much of Tali’s life revolves around interacting with students, which is exactly what appeals to him about the FIR role. Tali wants to bridge a common gap between faculty and students, whose experiences can often be disconnected even though they spend a lot of time near each other. 

“It’s a way for faculty to understand students’ lives and issues in the undergraduate community broadly and holistically,” he says, “and to advocate for students to other parts of the university.”

Tali’s story begins in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. Like many children, he wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. Unlike most, he pursued a demanding educational path to reach that ambitious destination. After he finished his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, he knew he would have to move to the mainland to fulfill his longstanding astronomical dreams. Tali attended Stanford University for his master’s and Ph.D. in physics, and then went to work for NASA. Although his work with experimental dark matter and neutrino physics is highly technical, even non-astrophysicists can appreciate the appeal of studying massive collisions and explosions in space, not to mention things getting sucked into black holes.  Tali did almost become an astronaut – twice – but he missed the intellectual variety and vibrant community that he found at Stanford, so he returned to academia.

Tali spent nearly a decade on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where, to help create the sort of vibrant community he loves, he served for five years as an Associate Housemaster (a position recently retitled as “Associate Head of House”). His residential role at MIT shares some similarities with that of a Northwestern FIR: he hosted Thanksgiving dinner for students who remained on campus over the break, organized de-stressing events, and helped connect students with university resources. Tali also rarely missed a chance to share his background in mechanical engineering with students. In a remarkable investment of time and display of trust, he helped students build a wooden roller coaster they had designed, and then he took the first ride on it. He especially enjoyed more frivolous events, like the time he and residents dropped pumpkins from the highest building in town at midnight with AC/DC songs playing in the background. (As will become clear, it is no coincidence that this outing managed to sneakily incorporate some physics and music.)  

When he was being recruited to join the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Northwestern, Tali’s commitment to engagement with students prompted him to ask Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Ron Braeutigam about residential faculty leadership positions similar to those at MIT. Fortunately, Braeutigam has long overseen, in conjunction with the Division of Student Affairs, Northwestern’s residential communities, each of which has a Faculty-in-Residence. And, coincidentally, the ongoing Housing Master Plan included two major renovations that would soon double the number of faculty apartments on campus from two to four. In just his second year at Northwestern, Tali became the inaugural Faculty-in-Residence of the Bobb-McCulloch-Goodrich residential community.

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Tali brings much more than his intellectual interests to the FIR role. He also shares his passion for music with students. As a child, Tali played the flute and drums in church, and his enthusiasm for live music and astronomy have always been intertwined: Tali played in aptly-named bands both at NASA (“Naked Singularity”) and MIT (“Asymptotic Freedom”). As he continues settling into life at Northwestern, Tali has ambitions to start a band in the Bobb-McCulloch-Goodrich residential community and even has another clever name ready: “The Notorious BMG.” For now, he jams informally with students from the community, usually in the recently-created music practice room in the Bobb-McCulloch basement, and organizes excursions to local performances.

The campus arts scene is one of Tali’s favorite parts of Northwestern. “I don’t even need to go to Chicago,” he says. “I can head over to the Arts Circle and we have world-class theater and music within walking distance.” And when Tali heads over to the Arts Circle, he brings students along so he can get to know them better and so they can meet their neighbors and discover a campus gem. On one recent evening, Tali hosted a dinner for students in his apartment, after which they all walked to Cahn Auditorium to see a campus production of Don Giovanni with a modern twist.

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It’s not just undergraduate students who enjoy sharing Tali’s interest in music. Liza Sobel, graduate assistant (GA) to the Bobb-McCulloch-Goodrich residential community and doctoral student in music composition, also enjoys the opportunities she has to connect with Tali. “I appreciate that we’re in such diverse disciplines, but can still enhance each other. I’ve had the chance to learn about his research, which I wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise, and we can also connect around our shared interested in music. He doesn’t just ask me questions about my own work, but he’s also brought instruments to SnackChat [a weekly community event they organize] to play music with students.”

For Tali, being a FIR is about much more than connecting with students over his passions, like astronomy or music, and theirs, which he finds endlessly diverse and interesting. It is about forming meaningful relationships. Students who come to dinner in his residence may wind up playing with Luna or engaging in a Nerf gun battle with Ignacio, or they may sit and chat with Tali and Barbara for hours about what’s going on in their lives. Tali has developed enduring mentorships with students, but even casual conversations have been invaluable for refining his teaching, which extends the benefits of the FIR role from the residential context and into undergraduate education. As a professor, it can be challenging to keep up with all of the academic and social events on students’ calendars, but as a FIR, Tali finds that he is much more aware of major exams in other courses or major happenings like Dance Marathon that can affect his teaching plans.

At the end of the day, what Tali enjoys most about the FIR role is being able to spend more time with students. Fortunately, the students of the Bobb-McCulloch-Goodrich residential community feel the same way. Junior Tasha Petrik said that the best part of living in the community is the opportunity to interact with new people, especially Tali and his GA, Liza. “They're really interesting and provide a perspective that's definitely different from that of undergrads, and it really makes me feel like I understand the overall Northwestern community better,” Petrik said. 

“Tali has added so much value to our community," said Bobb-McCulloch-Goodrich Residence Director Elana Levy. "Whether it is through programming or welcoming residents to the community, students have loved getting to chat with him.” And there are plans to add more FIR positions to the campus, so in coming years all students will have opportunities like Tasha to gain new perspectives on Northwestern by interacting with their local FIR.