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Interview of Dan Velazquez by Danielle (Zahoran) Gudakunst

This is the next in a series of PGSS alumni interviews. You may recall alumni could volunteer to be interviewed by another PGSS alumnus/a. We had wonderful volunteers, and the next result is attached. Enjoy!

Thank you to Danielle for interviewing and Dan for being interviewed.

     

Dan Velazquez (PGSS 1989) originally hailed from New Jersey, but he moved to Pennsylvania just before starting 10th grade. While the move put him a little out of sync with his fellow sophomores in terms of classwork, it also opened the door for his eventual attendance at PGSS.

When asked about the impact of the PGSS on his life and career, Dan referenced the breadth of knowledge that was presented. “What I really liked about PGSS was just being exposed to everything... It really opened my mind to the more advanced subjects in science. For example, I never would have thought that I would have had a basic understanding of relativity had it not been for the course at PGSS.” He also commented on the social benefits of attending; in his words, “It was great having like-minded nerds.”

Even before attending PGSS, Dan showed an aptitude for math and science, particularly when it came to understanding why and how things work—growing up, he “liked to take things apart and solve puzzles.” PGSS was his first exposure to high-level science and math, as well as higher education in general. Now, as a high school physics teacher, he gets the opportunity to share his interests with his students. “The great thing is I’m teaching the regular-level kids, and it’s cool because I’m able to explain all the difficult concepts to them in a way they understand.”

However, serving as a high school teacher is Dan’s second career calling. After high school, he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. While he was interested in math throughout his education—including at PGSS, where he participated in a project that mathematically proved the pattern on a soccer ball—the military academy’s math program failed to sell him on majoring in mathematics. Instead, Dan earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry, with a minor in chemical engineering.

As an officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, Dan spent 22 years engaged in efforts for countering weapons of mass destruction, advising commanders and policy makers on how to protect the military and country against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons.

During his time with the U.S. Army, Dan also completed graduate coursework in physics to further his knowledge and understanding of nuclear weapons. He became the project lead for developing technologies for technical nuclear forensics—in other words, determining what technologies could be used to identify and connect the source material to a Nation or actor if a non-sanctioned nuclear device was used.

A significant highlight of his work included interacting with scientists working at the National Laboratories. Dan used his ability to distill complex concepts to their simplest forms to help them craft their papers and reports to be more accessible and understandable to a larger audience. He excelled in this role—in one case, after helping a professional engineer rework a highly technical written explanation of a weapon’s effect, the Vice Chairman who received it said it was the best explanation he had ever read.

His role in the military required him to know “a little bit about everything,”—chemistry, biology, and physics in particular—and he credits PGSS with exposing him to that style of knowledge, saying the program “gave us a smattering of everything tha"t we could pick and choose later on what to do with it."

After retiring from the U.S. Army, Dan spent some time as math tutor, but “caught the [teaching] bug” when he stepped in as long-term substitute for a high school teacher who “needed a sub who could do linear algebra and multivariable calculus.”

He also spent time improving his public speaking through Toastmasters and a comedy improv class. While he tried the comedy improv just to explore something different, a lesson from his instructor has stuck with him: “Life is improv. You learn how to accept everything that’s thrown at you and roll with the punches.”

Currently, Dan lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter, where he continues to teach and share his interest in physics and how things work with his high school students, a role he plans to continue to serve in for at least the next ten years.
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