January 29, 2007 in City

Physics studies energized

By The Spokesman-Review

When Benjamin Spaun finishes his undergraduate work at Whitworth College, he hopes to head to one of the country’s top research universities for graduate school.

“I’m thinking either nuclear physics or plasma physics,” said Spaun, a 21-year-old junior from Wenatchee.

Either choice would be just fine with those who worry that fewer American college students are entering the sciences – at a time when technological competitiveness worldwide is intense. Spaun is part of a program at Whitworth that’s been dramatically bucking that trend, increasing the school’s number of physics majors from 11 to 60 in the past decade.

The American Association of Physics Teachers presented Whitworth’s physics department with a special citation earlier this month. Whitworth and the University of Washington were the only two schools honored for an “exemplary increase” in the number of physics majors.

It was just the latest accolade for the Whitworth department, which has been sending out interns and alumni to some of the country’s top research institutions.

“The country has not produced enough scientists – especially physical scientists,” said Richard Stevens, associate professor at Whitworth and chairman of the physics department.

Officials in government and colleges are concerned about the drop-off in science and math majors, saying it could put America at a disadvantage economically as well as limit the number of people dedicated to solving problems of health care, communications, poverty and other pressing issues.

“We live in a technology-intensive society,” said Kamesh Sankaran, assistant professor of physics at Whitworth. “More than ever in the history of society, we have tied our success to technology. … Physics is the most fundamental science behind all these technologies.”

Stevens came to Whitworth in 1997. In the years since, he’s hired Sankaran and professor John Larkin and has tried to create an emphasis on research work and hands-on projects.

Sankaran, who studies plasma engines used for space flight, was hired three years ago from Princeton. Students in his courses participate in computer modeling of rocket propulsion systems, and some – like Spaun – have a chance to participate in the testing of such systems.

Spaun traveled to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., last year to test plasma propulsion systems in a highly sensitive vacuum chamber.

“I was very fortunate to get that position,” he said.

He also had an internship at Duke University – one of many connections between the Whitworth program and some of the country’s top research schools.

Students who work with Larkin are researching photo-reactive drugs for cancer treatment, Stevens said.

Spaun said that, while he had an interest in math and science coming out of high school in Wenatchee, it was working with the Whitworth professors that turned him toward physics.

“It’s the faculty,” he said. “I can’t point to the fact that we have top-notch labs or a lot of money, as of now, for research. It’s the faculty. … They invest a lot of time in their students. I have seen them in there as late as 11, 12 o’clock at night the night before a test, helping people study.”

Whitworth is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to double the space devoted to science, Stevens said.

He said it’s vital that the country keep up in the fields of science and technology, and that basic science such as physics is the underpinning for technological advances that affect everyone. MRI, he pointed out, was based on the discoveries of a physicist.

“We would really like to continue to see our program grow,” he said.

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