Wednesday, June 08, 2016

A New Chapter Begins

At the end of June 2016, I retire after 15 years as the Head of Physics and Astronomy. I hand the reins of the physics department over to Chris Hughes and Ioana Niculescu, who have agreed to take them, at least for little while. I've had my turn and I have had lots of fun doing it.

When I came to JMU in 2001, it was a much smaller department but one with a strong sense of who they were and what they were about. This has been the key to the successful transformation of the department that happened over the last 15 years. Almost immediately upon my arrival, we began hiring new faculty and this has continued. 2016 is the 10th consecutive year in which the department has hired at least two new faculty: this year we added five new faculty! I see no reason to expect that this hiring trend will slow down in the future. As a result of this constant hiring, our department now has a median hire date for the faculty in the department of 2010. Think about that for a bit.

As a result of this focus and sense of self, the faculty have innovated and excelled. They focused on our excellent students and expanded their research and learning opportunities. With the significant and sustained external funding obtained by the faculty, we have a perfect track record in finding funded summer research positions for our students. The faculty have made continual and significant changes to the curriculum and expanded academic opportunities to embrace students with a wide variety of interests.

In addition, there are now new ways for our students to contribute and learn by being Learning Assistants in engaged classrooms. The 'Saturday Morning Physics' program and the Robotics effort have added to the ongoing 'Physics is Phun' demo shows to expand our contact with students at every level. The 'Demystifying the Expert' program is connecting students with scientists across the college. The explosive growth in attendance at the John C. Wells Planetarium, its associated camps, and lectures gives the many students working as operators there expanded informal education experiences and has given our program a new visibility.

You'll notice that none of this explicitly includes anything that I've done. I believe an analogy with the sport of curling is appropriate here. The faculty and students throw a stone (initiate the idea/project) moving forward. I'm the sweeper. I simply move the distractions out of the way and keep the ice smoothed or roughed in the right places to keep things on the proper track. It is the faculty and students that make the department great.

Central to the success of the department has been the unflagging support of Kim Emerson. She has kept the university machinery lubricated and been essential in navigating to success over the years. My hat is off to you, Kim. I couldn't have done it without you. Thanks.

I've really enjoyed my job of "sweeping". I've been privileged to work with a department filled with smart, hard-working people who made my job exciting and rewarding. It's been fun and I couldn't have done it without you. Thanks to all of you for making Physics and Astronomy at JMU one of the best departments in the country.

The next chapter in my book is one that is very different. Elizabeth and I are heading Down Under to visit Oceana for a couple years. You can follow along on our travels at our blog No Better Life.

Hope you enjoy the next phase of the journey as much as we will.