“Going into my senior year of high school, if you had told me I would major in physics in college, I would have laughed,” says Heather Dunlap ‘14.

But an AP physics class her senior year started to change her mind. Her teacher’s hands-on approach gave her confidence. Each day, the students would to solve a problem that related to something they had previously discussed in class, and students worked together to find a solution. At exam time, her teacher gave them each a folder containing all of the problems to study from. Dunlap says, “He told us, ‘I don’t want to hear any of you tell me that you can’t do this, because you already have.’”

By the time she arrived at Richmond, Dunlap felt confident in her choice to pursue a physics major, but yet another inspirational teacher sparked her to add a unexpected second major in theater.

Dunlap had participated in her high school’s theater program, so she selected an acting course to fulfill her general education arts requirement. Her professor, Chuck Mike, focused on theatre as a means to address social issues. Each student conducted research on a topic of their choice and wrote and presented a five-minute theater piece on the topic that involved three different characters.

Inspired by interactions with her high school classmates who didn’t consider college a viable option, Dunlap researched the prevalence of social class differences in today’s society, despite efforts to alleviate them.

However, writing her monologue proved more challenging than she expected. “I hated the piece; it wasn’t saying what I wanted it to,” she says. 

After her performance, Mike immediately recognized how she felt, but more importantly, knew that she could do better. He told her to cut the entire piece and come back to the next class — just two days later — with a rewritten monologue.

She left uncertain how to proceed, but once she ripped up the old monologue, the words starting flowing. She looked back to interactions with her high school teachers and created a piece about teachers who encouraged students to attend college, and those students become teachers who inspired a new generation of students. When she finished — only 30 minutes later — she knew she had a strong story to tell. “It was the most satisfying moment of my life, to know that I could do something like that, that I had the strength,” she says.

Her work in Mike’s class also gave her the confidence to approach the Department of Theatre and Dance’s lighting designer Maja White about an apprenticeship. Within a year, she went from operating the light board, to designing the lights for the spring dance concert, to an internship with Chance Theater outside Los Angeles, Calif., where she worked on the technical elements of their production of West Side Story. She also with served as assistant stage manager and ran the LED light board during the show.

While the creativity of theater and the statistical nature of physics might seem disparate, Dunlap sees a natural fit. Her physics concentration in electricity and magnetism led to a greater understanding of operating theater lighting equipment, and theater has offered the perfect use for scientific theory.

“Learning physics has become more fun,” she says, “because I know a very real and practical application for it.”