Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State

Taking Physics to a Higher Level
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Taking Physics to a Higher Level

Stamatis Vokos

1 STAMATIS 2015Stamatis Philippou Vokos has never changed his name although many non-Greeks, even his wife when she first met him, have found it difficult to pronounce.   He was born in Athens, Greece, on November 28, 1963, and left Greece when he was 17 years old. Through a variety of unintended events, Stamatis’ career in physics has taken him far from his homeland.

His father, Philippos, was a renowned 2 Family, Phillipos (seated) 1930sarchitect in Greece.  He was born on the island of Spetses on January 6, 1924.  Until World War II began, he attended the Anargyrios and Korgialeneios School of Spetses for boys on a fellowship.  This was a boarding school built in the 1920s by initiative of Eleftherios Venizelos, the eminent Greek statesman, and other local benefactors.  It became a day school in the 1970s and closed in the 1990s. It now functions as a conference center.

Philippos designed hotels and hospitals throughout Greece, including Napflion, Ioannina and the Xenia Hotel on the island of Spetses.  He had been working for the NTO (National Tourist Organization) of Greece when the military junta came to power in 1967.  In 1970 he was asked to sign the license for the construction of a hotel that would have violated the building codes and the intent of the law.  Philippos was threatened and told if he did not sign he would never work as an architect again.  He refused and was out of work with the responsibility of supporting his mother, his wife his children and an aunt that lived with the family. Regardless, he protected his family from the adversity and shielded them from difficulties during that time. It was a blessing in disguise as Philippos then opened his own office 3 Phillipos and Andriana wedding, 1951and became recognized as an outstanding professional.  His specialty was the design of hospitals during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Unfortunately, he suffered from dementia in his later years and died in September of 2008.  At his passing there were verbal and published tributes from many people, including his colleagues.

4 Andrianna and Phillipos, 1998     5 Yiayia Panagiota and mother Andrianna, late 1950s

Adriani Anastasopoulou’s (Stamatis’ mother) family was from Aigio, near Patras in the Greek Peloponnese.  She was born in Athens on July 17, 1923, and is described by Stamatis as “the epitome of sweetness.”  She was called “Nounou,” a name she called herself as a young child and it stuck.  She was 6 Family of origin (l-r) Yiayia Panayioula, Andrianna with Stamatis in arms) Vasili, Temy, Phillipos, Cousin Eleni, Cousin Poly, Theitsa Metaxia, 1964secretive about her age as it would have been scandalous to marry the  younger Philippos.  She attended the University of Athens and taught ancient Greek literature until she became pregnant with their first child.  The son, Georgos, developed a serious medical problem at birth and died.  Three younger children were born to Philippos and Adriani: Panayioula “Yiouli,” Polytimi “Temy” and Stamatis.  When Adriani died in January of 2005, Stamatis was able to be with her as he would be with his father in 2008.

Stamatis began private school in the neighborhood of Patissia.  While his sisters started with German as a second language, he was already learning English from his nanny, Monica Wodehouse.  As a British actress, she talked all the time and made up magical stories, which enhanced his imagination.  Stamatis maintained contact with her until her passing.

7 Nouna Toula and Stamatis, 1965      8 Stamatis, first day at school, 1969      9 Stamatis with Paschallamb, 1972

The family spent much of their time on Spetses at the family home which has a long history on that island.  It continues to be a refuge for them.  The home was built in 1863 by his paternal great grandfather, Vasilios Petrou Michalopoulos, whose initials are still visibly etched on the balcony.  The family shares the name Vokos with Andreas Miaoulis Vokos, an admiral and politician who commanded Greek 10 Phillipos and Stamatis, 1974naval forces during the war of independence from 1821 to 1829.  It is reported that Andreas killed a prominent Turk who had raped his sister.  As the extended family could no longer remain in the area, the Vokos ancestors came from the north of Greece, some settling in Halkida, while others on the islands of Hydra and Spetses.

Stamatis’ performance in school was very good and he attended the French high school Lycée Léonin d’ Athènes. The education from the Jesuit monks was wonderful and he was on a trajectory for the study of physics at the University of Athens but a student strike provided impetus to seek other possibilities for his studies.  In October of 1981 Stamatis found himself at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.  When he called his parents to seek their blessing for the start of his university studies, he learned that he had ranked first in the admissions examinations for the University of Athens.   It was a bittersweet moment as he was starting a new life abroad but had every reason to have remained in Greece.  It was a struggle as he had no preparation for the study of physics or mathematics in English.  At the end of his third week, his math homework was returned and the professor said, “We do not write pi like that.”  Stamatis had to learn the English way of expressing his work.

He received his bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics and was assisted by a British mentor, Dr. Lewis Ryder, who suggested the United States as the location for further study.  Stamatis was hesitant, having 11 Phillipos and Diana, 1985finally become familiar with the British system but trusted his mentor and applied and was admitted to several universities, including the University of California at Berkeley. When he landed in San Francisco, California, after the lengthy trip from London he was exhausted and totally unprepared for the cultural change.  Then, he was whisked away on a helicopter which had been arranged by his father from San Francisco across the bay to Berkeley, “an exhausted kid among business travelers.”

His knowledge of the United States was limited to what he had seen on television and read in newspapers. He found people to be friendlier and less materialistic that he 12 Hotel Xenia on Spetes, courtesy Benaki Museumexpected. But, his plan still was to complete his Ph.D. and return to Greece, just as he had planned in England.  However, that plan was altered significantly when he met Dianna Previs from West Linn, Oregon.  Dianna’s heritage is predominantly Scandinavian and she knew nothing about Greeks or Greece although she had traveled extensively.  Just pronouncing Stamatis’ name was a challenge.  Once they fell in love, she knew that whether they lived in the United States or Greece, their life together would be fine.  On her first trip to Greece with Stamatis, Dianna was “terrified” and was on her best behavior to be the kind of person that Philippos and Adriani would have wanted for their son.  In private comments to her son, Adriani insisted the family would have no problem with Dianna not being Greek, but Stamatis interpreted her repeated statements to that effect that it was not the case from the start.  Using her studies in languages and culture, Dianna eventually knew almost “more Greek” than her husband and the Vokos family came to regard her as their own precious daughter.

Stamatis and Dianna were married on Spetses on Friday, 13 Stamatis and Diana, 1986August 18, 1989.  Originally planned for a Saturday, the wedding was moved back one day as wedding revelry would interfere with attendance at the liturgy on Sunday morning.  With invitations reprinted and guests notified, the priest was an hour late but so were the flowers.  However, the event was a “magical blend of cultures” with 40 guests from the United States and Europe.  It was preceded by an American style rehearsal dinner and followed by a honeymoon on the island of Crete.

Dianna had finished a master’s degree at the Johns Hopkins 14 Phillipos and Stamatis, 1986University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. and was scheduled to pursue a second master’s degree at the University of Chicago.  However, her pregnancy with their first child, Arianna, postponed the study for one year. Then, in 1990, after Stamatis finished his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Berkeley, the family went to Chicago where Stamatis completed post-doctoral work at Argonne National Laboratory while Dianna earned her master’s in business administration at the University of Chicago.  In 2016, Dianna completed her third master’s 15 Stamatis, Diana Phillipos, 1986degree, this one in Applied International Studies from the University of Washington.

In 1992 while Dianna was expecting their second child, Caroline, Stamatis began applying for work and narrowed down his choices to two institutions: Columbia University in New York or the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle.  The decision was made to be closer to Dianna’s family so the children could experience time with their Oregon grandparents.  The family also began making regular trips to Spetses to be with their paternal 16 Diana's family, 1989grandparents and relatives.  At the time it seemed too expensive, but the cultural experiences have been well worth it for the Vokos daughters.  Their youngest daughter, Sophia, became part of the family when she was born in 1994.

17 Stamatis working on his dissertation, 1989At the UW, Stamatis was conducting postdoctoral work in elementary particle theory and began to explore the field of physics education research, a unique combination of his two academic passions, teaching and research.   Coordinating activities between the two UW research groups was a difficult challenge.  After ten years at the UW he secured an appointment across town in the physics department of Seattle Pacific University (SPU).  The experience was similar to that of his father’s; the problems of 18 Stamatis at SPU, 2008leaving one position but ultimately finding a better one.  At SPU he has been able to continue research on the learning and teaching of physics. With the help of funding from the National Science Foundation and the Boeing Company, he played a singular part in the SPU Science Initiative and established collaborative programs with other foundations and institutions in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine and South Carolina.  The mission of his work is to improve the effectiveness of the teaching of physics and physical science.  He also holds an affiliate professorship at the University of Cyprus.  Recently, SPU approved a study-abroad program in Greece which Stamatis hopes to conduct in the future.   The topics will be contemporary physics and eastern Christianity ranging from Aristotle to the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator, in Geneva, Switzerland.

Working and raising children in Seattle has been a very positive experience for the Vokos family.  Now, with their children grown and the possibility of living in a better climate, Stamatis has decided to accept a position at the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo beginning in September of 2016.

Stamatis has seen 20 Baptism of Sophia, 199419 Caroline, Arianna, Stamatis, Diana, Sophia, 1998significant changes in the Greek migration patterns and huge social changes in a short  period of time.  First, people migrated to Greece in the 1990s to find work and share the economic and educational benefits that were developing there.  Now, with no future in their own country, young people are leaving Greece for better opportunities elsewhere.  Stamatis and other established Greek immigrants are frequently sought out as possible sponsors for those seeking to leave 21 Sophia, Caroline Andrianna with Papou Phillipos, 2008Greece. Conditions in Greece are increasingly difficult for Stamatis’s family.  Taxes are imposed based on potential income even if one is not working.  His relatives are not sure when their next paycheck will come.  In Stamatis’ opinion, the situation of increasing poverty and widespread misery is becoming close to that which existed just after World War II.

As his parents said, “o Theos tha thosi,” God will provide.  They also reminded him that “Anthropos agramatos, xylo apelekito,” (an 22 Arianna, Catherine, Stamatis, Diana Sophia, 2015uneducated person is like a piece of wood that has not been shaped) and that “Kalio gaїthourodene, paragaїthouroyireve,” (it is better to tether your 23 STAMATIS AND DIANA, 2015donkey than to run after it). He is profoundly grateful to his parents for what he calls his “undeserved” good fortune: a rich history, high expectations, a strict behavior code and a deep abiding faith.  They believed that the world is a good place and, with God’s grace, troubles and obstacles can be overcome.  Even when faced with difficult or painful situations, these gifts have enabled Stamatis to find new and more rewarding opportunities.

By John and Joann Nicon, August, 2016
1 Stamatis holding official minutes of 1800 Spetses meetings, 2015
2 Vokos family (Philippos seated) Metaxia and Stamatis at left, 1930s
3 Philippos and Adriani wedding, 1951
4 Adriani and Philippos, 1998
5 Yiayia Panagiota and Adriani, late 1950s
6 Family (l-r) Yiayia Panagiota, Adriani with Stamatis in arms, Vasili, Temy, Philippos, cousin Eleni, cousin Poly, “thitsa” (aunt) Metaxia, circa 1964
7 Nouna Toula and Stamatis, 1965
8 Stamatis’ first day at school, 1969
9 Stamatis with Paschal lamb, 1972
10 Philippos and Stamatis, 1974
11 Philippos and Dianna, 1985
12 Hotel Xenia on Spetses, 1963
13 Stamatis and Dianna, 1986
14 Philippos and Stamatis, 1986
15 Stamatis, Dianna and Philippos, 1986
16 Dianna’s family (l-r) Christine, brother Edward, paternal grandmother Vienna, father Art, Dianna, Carolyn, mother’s husband Temple, Linda, brother Tom, 1989
17 Stamatis working on his dissertation, 1989
18 Stamatis at SPU, 2008
19 Caroline, Arianna, Stamatis, Dianna, Sophia, 1998
20 Baptism of Sophia (l-r) Philippos, Adriani, Arianna, Caroline, Stamatis, Dianna holding Sophia, friend Dimitris, 1994
21 Sophia, Caroline, Arianna with Papou Philippos, 2008
22 Arianna, Caroline, Stamatis, Dianna, Sophia, 2015
23 Stamatis and Dianna, 2015
Photos 1 and 23 by John Nicon; 12 courtesy of Benaki Museum; 18 courtesy of Seattle Pacific University; all others from Vokos family collection
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, January 2016; Response, Seattle Pacific University publication, Spring 2008