APS News

SPS Congress Zeros in on Career Diversity and Undergrad Education Reform

Nobel Prize winner William Phillips crumbles a flower frozen with liquid nitrogen as part of his lecture on absolute zero. Top inset: Luncheon speaker James Trefil. Bottom inset: Banquet speaker Felice Frankel. (Photos by: M. Tarlton/AIP)
Nobel Prize winner William Phillips crumbles a flower frozen with liquid nitrogen as part of his lecture on absolute zero. Top inset: Luncheon speaker James Trefil. Bottom inset: Banquet speaker Felice Frankel. (Photos by: M. Tarlton/AIP)

Physicists from the premier alumni association for physics in the US gathered at ACP Headquarters in College Park, MD, for the 2000 Quadrennial Congress of Sigma Pi Sigma, held in September. According to its mission statement, Sigma Pi Sigma is a national physics organization that cuts across all career paths to unite individuals with a common heritage in physics, despite working in a broad variety of professions.

"Our goal is to spark the interchange of insight, experience, wisdom and connections among our membership for both personal and societal gains," says Bo Hammer of AIP. The Congress featured guest speakers from industry, business, government, the humanities and academia, to achieve the event's stated objective of recognizing "the varied paths taken by physics alumni," and "the relationship between a solid physics education and success in a variety of professions." There was also a special panel discussion featuring retired physicists sharing professional and personal insights gleaned during their years in such varied fields as atmospheric physics, space science, biophysics, materials science, and industry.

The Congress kicked off with a special dinner on Friday evening, featuring a keynote address on laser cooling and trapping - involving a visual demonstration with liquid nitrogen - by NIST's William Phillips, a Nobel Prize winner in 1997, and Sigma Pi Sigma member since 1983. Saturday morning featured a distinguished panel of industrial physicists employed in diverse careers, discussing how their physics background has served them well in their chosen fields. For example, Amanda McDonald is now an actuary with American Fidelity, and says her physics background was useful almost immediately in her position, specifically in statistical probability and analysis.

Steven Morin is director of research, development and engineering for Omega Optical, a small high-tech manufacturing firm that produces optical filters for controlling signal to noise ratios. Omega competes in a $50 million niche market, and hence its focus is on application specific products and processes. Because of its small size (less than 100 employees), the company is able to respond to immediate customer product needs with incremental technological developments. However, its R&D projects require reasonably quick expected paybacks, and its employees must operate in a fast-moving environment with high pressure from competition and the need for short product development cycle. Hence, the company seeks out technical generalists, and Morin feels physicists are best suited to fill the technical needs of smaller companies like Omega.

John Sunderland is technical operations director and a medical physicist at the Biomedical Research Foundation of Northwest Louisiana, who taught high school physics before earning his PhD in physics, and now works with positron emission tomography. While his career path has been diverse, he found that such practical physics experience as the photoelectric effect, Compton scattering, diffraction, reflection and refraction served him well in the applied field of medical physics. In fact, "I use virtually everything I ever learned in physics in my job," he says, adding that it also significantly facilitated his pursuit of an MBA. Still, Sunderland feels that a fundamental problem today in physics education is that most physics educators have little applied experience outside academia, since most of those who find employment in applied fields tend not to return to teach, or even contribute to education.

A possible solution was offered by Stephen Cobb, chair of the Department of Physics at Murray State University in Kentucky. He stressed the difficulty many potential employers experience in articulating the difference between a scientist and an engineer. To help combat this mindset, Murray State has instituted an alternative approach to the traditional undergraduate physics education: a combined physics and engineering degree. Thus far the new degree has proven quite popular with students in the department, more than 75% of whom are pursuing the combined degree. Cobb also reports that these students are routinely accepted into advanced degree programs, and have placements rates of 100% with such major companies as Boeing, NASA, Intel, Texas Instruments, Raytheon and Lockheed.

The "meat" of the two-day congress was the organization of breakout sessions on Saturday to discuss a variety of issues relating to physics education and public outreach, including undergraduate curriculum reform, the public face of physics, and the continued under-representation of women and minorities in physics. The National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics has asked Sigma Pi Sigma for recommendations on revitalizing undergraduate physics education. The recommendations of the various groups will be gathered in a report and disseminated through numerous venues later this year.

The Sigma Pi Sigma Congress organizers also bestowed special honorary membership on a few select attendees, including Phillips and former AIP Executive Director Kenneth Ford. The same honor was bestowed on luncheon speaker James Trefil, a physics professor and popular author, who also received the 2000 AIP Andrew Gemant Award for his efforts on behalf of physics outreach to the general public. Yet another new honorary SPS member was Saturday evening's banquet speaker, Felice Frankel, an award-winning science photographer whose book, On the Surface of Things, has received both scientific and artistic acclaim. (For a profile of Frankel, whose work was exhibited during the APS Centennial meeting in Atlanta in 1999, see APS News, May 1999.)

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette