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History-Achieving Balance: 1987-Present

Over the years, members of the department became concerned about the trend towards the over representation of theoretical physics at the expense of experimental physics, where something like 80 percent of the work in the field is carried on. Some professors voiced concern that particular students were doing theses on theoretical material when they should have been doing experimental theses.

Yet altering the department’s course was not easy. Experimentalists need equipment to work with, which requires start-up money. Many experimentalists prefer teaching at the larger universities where cutting-edge research is routinely supported and the instrumentation to do it exists. Also, at Reed experimentalists must pursue projects that will fit into a room and can be effectively pursued by one faculty plus students. "And the crucial question always is, to what extent will this project enhance the experience of our undergraduates?" Wheeler asks.

For short-term appointments, these physicists are less likely to be attracted to a college without a history of research or the requisite equipment. Openings for long-term appointments at Reed came by only periodically, but when they did, faculty began to seek experimentalists to fill them.

"At that point, the College hadn’t heard of start-up funds," says Wheeler, who was department Chair at the time. "We wanted to hire (experimentalist) Johnny Powell, but he couldn’t come unless we got the funds. We negotiated with the College to get $50,000 for that purpose as well as to release time for him to pursue further funding.

"Now, of course, start-up funds are routinely approved in many departments."

In 1987, Johnny Powell, a biophysicist with strong experimental credentials, was offered a position. Powell had received his BA and MA from California State University at Northridge, and a PhD at Arizona State University, with postdoctoral studies at Arizona State and the Max Planck Institute in Germany, where he worked in infra-red spectroscopy. Powell also brought with him connections to research groups at the University of Toledo, Purdue, the University of Stockholm, Arizona State, Oregon State and the University of Oregon, where he was able to help students get positions for summer research.

On his arrival, Powell obtained grants from the NSF for an infrared spectrometer, and began building up his program. "I tried to give students a really serious research experience, including publishing in a research journal," Powell says; in those years his publishing record was strong, and on each of those papers, a Reed student was listed as first author.

In 1994, Powell realized that the requirements of his research set up conflicts with the demands of a full teaching load as defined at Reed. He asked to go to half-time, with the understanding that he would be devoting the freed time fully to research. The College approved his request. Powell continued to work, collaborating with a pharmaceutical company on the dynamics of DNA in drugs called antisense oligonucleotides, for use against cancer. At that time, in recognition of his achievements, he was also elected to the Executive Committee of the Division of Biological Physics of the American Physical Society.

Yet there were conflicts. "It was odd to have one third of our small department (Powell and Professor Mary James) on half-time," reflects Wheeler, "and the situation presented difficulties in terms of the allocation of departmental responsibilities." In 1995, Powell reverted to full-time in the department and drastically curtailed the research work he had been pursuing, including his rate of publications.

The department continued to hire experimentalists. The next was Mary James in 1988. James, an applied physicist who had studied under David Griffiths as an undergraduate at Hampshire College, had gone on to receive her PhD at Stanford in particle accelerator physics and to do research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC).

"It’s unusual to go into undergraduate teaching with an interest in accelerator physics," James admits, "but when I was at the University of Maryland, I discovered that I liked working with undergraduates." James maintained her work at SLAC during the summers and breaks until she had her first child in 1994. At that point she went half-time, for the first two years splitting a position with Johnny Powell. She expects to return to teaching full- time in another two years, at which time, James says, she plans to develop a research program that can be pursued with instrumentation available at Reed.

James is the first person of color and the first woman to attain tenure in the Physics Department. "I think it’s good for women students–and for men–in this department to have a woman on the faculty," says James.

She adds, "The discipline of physics is generally so hostile to women in its culture that to complain about conditions at Reed would be inappropriate. And for women students, this may be a better place than most. The emphasis on cooperation and the individual support available are likely to make it easier for women to gain a foothold in such a non-traditional field."

In 1989, the new addition to the College library meant that the physics library could be removed from the department and placed in the central repository in a Unified Science Library, freeing up space in the Knowlton building. The effort, which resulted in the Unified Science Library (which came to include much more than just science), had been led for seventeen years by Nicholas Wheeler and Becky Pollock, the college Librarian.

Bruce McNamara joined the faculty in 1989 and served for four years. McNamara was an experimentalist specializing in nonlinear dynamics, who was, says David Griffiths, equally comfortable with theoretical physics. Griffiths adds, "He was excellent at knowing just how to set up nifty experiments in the lab to answer specific questions. I found myself sending students to him frequently for that–maybe too often." McNamara was also known as a perfectionist who demanded a lot of himself. Although he was offered a permanent position at Reed, he decided to leave to work in industry.

In 1993, the department hired John Essick, an experimentalist with an interest in solid state physics, who had completed his PhD at the University of Oregon. After post doctoral studies, he moved to Occidental College, where he taught for four years and was instrumental in establishing their advanced instructional laboratory.

The Reed department had tried to hire people to rebuild its Junior Lab; in Essick they hit the jackpot. "Before I even arrived at Reed, I started writing a proposal to the NSF Instrumentation and Lab Improvement program to improve instructional labs," Essick says. "When I realized that the administration and the department were completely behind me, I thought I would see how far I could take the project."

Nicholas Wheeler summarizes the events that followed: "Essick’s approach was to say, ‘I’ll make this the best undergraduate instructional physics laboratory in the country,’ and then to take major strides toward that goal." Essick had help with this from the Development Office, and, in the department, from Johnny Powell, a seasoned grant writer, and Robert Reynolds, who wrote the proposal for the astronomical observatory that was included in the package.

In the past, students in the advanced lab course had worked for seven weeks of the first semester on electronics, in part because, in consequence of Jean Delord’s association with Tektronix, electronic equipment was available when other kinds were not. "Students didn’t learn a lot of other techniques," says Mary James.

With the new lab, opportunities multiplied. Essick and his compatriots brought in $58,975 from the NSF in 1993, with an additional grant of $363,000 from the Murdock Foundation for renovation of rooms, an $18,790 equipment gift in kind from Tektronix Inc., a $5,000 laser from ILX LightWave, a laser manufacturer; and $10,000 from the Tektronix Foundation, for a grand total of close to half a million dollars.

Completed in 1996, the new Advanced Lab can truly be called state of the art, allowing a range of fundamental measuring techniques, organized in a modular fashion. New instruments include an Argon ion laser, an optical spectrometer, a monochrometer, a closed-cycle helium refrigerator, laser diode controllers, a scanning tunneling microscope, and materials fabrication equipment. An astronomical observation platform was built on the roof, and a telescope and a CCD camera acquired. "We tried to get equipment for a wide variety of at least ten sub-fields of physics so that students can try them out in the lab before they have to decide on a thesis topic," says Essick. "The exposure helps them define their interests." In addition the Physics 200 lab was remodeled and moved into a new space.

As a result of this success, there are times when thesis students want to continue using equipment belonging to the Advanced Lab which must, however, still be available for that lab. "I tell them they can use the equipment freely in the fall," says Essick, "but in the spring term, the juniors must have priority. So far the situation is manageable."

With such an increase in the number of instruments, a budget for repair inevitably became necessary. "It had already been a perennial problem, especially for Johnny Powell with his particularly sensitive equipment," says Essick. In 1994/5 the department was given a budget line item of $12,000 for repairs. Still, as Essick points out, the main tube of the new argon laser–which can be expected to need replacement–itself cost $20,000. However, the situation is not desperate; the college received a challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation, one half of which has been allotted to repair of equipment college-wide, and this, Essick says, the department may draw on in cases such as the laser tube.

Essick also picked up a project begun by former faculty member Bruce McNamara, who had begun to use the LabView system, a high-level program that allows a computer to become an active participant in experiments by manipulating, analyzing, and displaying data, as well as interacting with experimental devices.

"LabView is quite visual and easier than many to teach to people without computer backgrounds," says Essick. "I included Bruce’s system into the Junior Lab, and then found out that the publisher Prentice Hall wanted a book about it." In 1999, Essick wrote Advanced LabView Labs, published by Prentice Hall, for college instruction.

Meanwhile, Essick continues his own work on amorphous semi-conductors, and recently he received a $120,000 grant from the National Renewable Energy Lab to work on photovoltaics. Simultaneously, Essick has developed an interest in using lasers to cool and trap atoms, and before he went on sabbatical, he supervised the work of a thesis student who was setting up an atom trap.

In 1994 John Simpson, a Reed graduate in physics in 1940, now Distinguished Professor of Astrophysics (emeritus) at Enrico Fermi Institute of the University of Chicago, was awarded the Arctowski Medal by the National Academy of Science, which included a $60,000 cash prize which he donated to the Reed Physics Department. "Reed did a lot for me, giving me a jump start in science," said Simpson. "It was my first introduction to the intellectual world. I was lucky… to find at Reed this undreamed-of-place where I could grow intellectually and establish a framework of professional and personal standards vital to my life." The department allotted $20,000 of Simpson’s gift to equipment; the rest was invested to support student research.

By the year 2000, the physics department has reached a balance of theorists and experimentalists, giving students a wider range of approaches to work with. "Now," says Wheeler, "two thirds of the theses coming from this department are on experimental topics, and many are very sophisticated."

It is also a department that is, in the words of graduate Scott Caveny ’95, "simultaneously very classical and very modern. At one end," Caveny says, "you have Nick Wheeler who encourages you to read Newton and Einstein, which no one else in graduate school has read, and at the same time you have David Griffiths who is up on particle theory. The balance of the two is unique."

The Reed Physics Department
The Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
The Era of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1897
Achieving Balance: 1987-Present
Academic Structure and Issues
Junior Qual
Senior Thesis
The Role of Research and the Integration of Research and Teaching
The Curriculum
Relations with Students
Teaching Style
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