This week, while most students were preoccupied dreaming up their own Valentine’s Day wishes or plans, I took the time to sit down with professor Suzanne Staggs and lecturer Jason Puchalla to talk about being a married couple in the Princeton bubble. Staggs has been a professor of physics at Princeton for roughly 20 years now, focusing on cosmology and astrophysics, while Puchalla is a physics lecturer and maintains an active research lab, investigating a wide range of biophysical phenomena.
The couple first met at physics conference in Chicago in the ‘90s, but the two have slightly different versions of the story. “He claims we met earlier than I think we met,” Staggs noted.
According to Puchalla, the two first encountered each other at a very large physics conference, before officially meeting at a later conference. “In a room of physicists, she stood out to me,” he explained.
The two were both studying at the University of Chicago at the time and working on cosmology and astrophysics. Staggs was pursuing a postdoctoral position while Puchalla was studying as a graduate student. However, as they recalled, they were brought together again when working under the same mentor on their respective projects. They had their first date following the conference during the Mardi Gras celebration in Chicago. The band "Big Guitars From Memphis" was playing in the bar that they went to together.
Since then, their work and relationship brought them to the East Coast. Initially, they did research together in the area of cosmology and astrophysics. Over time, while Staggs has continued to teach and research cosmology and astrophysics, Puchalla has become involved in research in biophysics.
When asked about the difference of academic interests, Puchalla said, “She looks up, and I look down!”
“He knows what I’m talking about, but I don’t know what he is talking about,” Staggs joked. In 1996, Staggs began work at Princeton as an assistant professor, while Puchalla was completing his post doc in Pennsylvania.
“I got the call [that Staggs was in labor] while I was in the lab at the University of Pennsylvania performing a particularly dangerous task,” Puchalla said. He joked that "what I was doing in the lab had the potential to blow up, and I made some inappropriate comment like, ‘can you wait a little?’’’ He got there in time, but they made the decision to both work at the same place after that experience, which they perceive as a turning point in their relationship.
According to Staggs, she was initially an assistant professor, before becoming a professor at Princeton. Puchalla is also a lecturer and now has a lab in Princeton.
After their first child was born, the couple decided that it would be too difficult to work in separate places. Today they live in Princeton with their two daughters, ages 15 and 18.
The couple admitted, “We use all sorts of geeky physics language at home, that our kids don’t always understand. On a microscope, the big mirror is called the primary and the little mirror is called the secondary, so we used to refer to our kids as primary and secondary, especially when one was a toddler and the other just a baby.”
Outside of work and spending time with their children, Puchalla and Staggs still enjoy hiking and backpacking. Their adventures have included tackling the Adirondack Mountains together as well as traveling to Italy. They have also recently visited Brazil with their two children.
With overwhelmingly busy schedules, Valentine’s Day hasn’t been on the couple’s mind. They said that they normally take a relaxed approach to the holiday, fitting it in when they find the time.
Reflecting on how often they see each other during the workday, Puchalla laughed, “She is on the second floor and I am on the first floor. We see each other at faculty meetings.”