After graduating from The Riverside School in 1995, Klejda obtained a BS in Physics with Honours in 1999 and a PhD in Physics in 2004, both from California Institute of Technology. Currently she is a lecturer and researcher at Columbia University where she conducts research in atomic, molecular and optical physics.
What inspired you to study physics and your field in particular?
I decided I wanted to become a physicist when I read a biography of Marie Curie when I was about 7 – 8 years old. Needless to say, I had no idea what physics really was at the time, but Mme. Curie’s life and her discoveries were so fascinating that I thought this is what I wanted to do. Lucky for me, it turned out that once I started taking physics later on, I really liked it.
What's been your greatest achievement to date?
I don’t know if I can point to just one event. Some milestones, such as becoming a mother, may not be considered an achievement per se (after all, most humans become parents at some point), but it was very important and life changing to me. Sometimes, a fortunate encounter, like when I met Mr Funk for the first time at my high school in Albania, can set in motion a life-changing chain of events. It was due to this encounter and the generosity of the Funk Family and Solon Foundation that I was given the opportunity to study at The Riverside School, which opened the door for applying to colleges such as Caltech and eventually for being where I am today.
How have you tackled the challenges in your personal and professional life?
Some challenges can be a blessing in disguise. For example, I was always aware that while I could depend on my family for their unconditional love and moral support, financial support for an elite higher education was impossible for them. As a result, I had to work hard and hope that I would be able to receive some kind of scholarship or work-study to pay for college. This provided me with strength and motivation during college, because of the effort it took to get there. Besides, being financially independent from one’s parents at such an early age has some useful side effects, such as having complete ownership of one’s career path and life decisions.
Your next big challenge?
Professionally, I hope our research group at Columbia produces some exciting results in the near future. We are trying to develop super-precise molecular clocks using atoms that have been cooled to within a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero. Molecular clocks have several important applications, one of which is that they are sensitive to certain fundamental constants of physics, such as the electron-proton mass ratio.
What's your favourite memory from attending The Riverside School?
Skiing. I learned how to ski there and I love the mountains. Punctuality is another fond memory. The train we took every day to school left at precisely 8:04 am. I have never lived anywhere else with such great and reliable public transportation.
It sounds like you moved a bit growing up – Albania, Switzerland, United States – you’re truly a world citizen. How did that influence you as a young adult?
To complete your list, I would also add that my husband is Russian, so our kids will be speaking three languages – English, Albanian and Russian. I find being a citizen of the world ideal. It expands your perspective, it deepens your understanding and respect for other cultures and it improves your ability to adapt. Given the direction the world is moving – toward more integration and globalisation – it prepares you for the future.
What do you get most out of teaching?
I do enjoy it, especially the class that I am currently teaching at Columbia. It is called Frontiers of Science and it is a required course for all freshmen. Each semester we have great lecturers from four scientific disciplines talk about cutting edge research in their field. We use that as a basis to teach students how to think critically and develop scientific habits of mind.
I believe these are very important skills for succeeding in life that, unfortunately, are not always taught. The challenge as an instructor is to make the class engaging for students ranging from a classically trained musician to a physics Olympiad winner. Throughout my life I have had some very inspiring teachers, especially at The Riverside School, so I hope I can emulate them and give my contribution to educating the next generation.