October 26, 2016 at 1:53 pm

Professor Emeritus Louis Wright Reflects on a Successful Career in Physics

Louis Wright

Louis Wright

By Jamison Lahman
Physics & Astronomy PACE writer

Educate yourself in other research areas. Respect your colleagues’ work. Remain optimistic. These words of wisdom were shared recently by Louis E. Wright, Professor Emeritus and former Chair of Physics & Astronomy, about his tenure as a faculty member at Ohio University.

Wright has had a long, productive career at OHIO. He was largely influential in the creation of the Condensed Matter and Surface Sciences Program as well as the Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics. Along with serving as Chair of Physics & Astronomy for 13 years, he was a member of the Faculty Senate for 18 years, including three years as Senate Chair. He has supervised 13 students with their dissertations. He retired in 2011.

In a Q&A, Wright talked about his interests as a physicist, his time as chair of Physics & Astronomy, his time on sabbatical in Mainz, Germany, and more.

Q: What was it like growing up in the mid-20th century, with the Space Race and everything of that nature, and how did that influence you?

I was born in 1940 and graduated from high school in ’58. When I was about 12 years old, I started reading science fiction and noticed that all the smart guys tended to be physicists. Although I didn’t know exactly what physics was, I decided I wanted to be a physicist. So when I went to LSU (Louisiana State University) in 1958, I majored in physics. Since LSU had a department of physics and astronomy, I took a lot of astronomy classes. I’ve always had sort of an amateur interest in astronomy although I’ve never looked through a telescope.

My father suggested I major in engineering, which had more obvious job prospects, but when I looked at the curriculum and saw how rigid it was, I opted for physics where I had many more electives.

Of course Sputnik happened at that time. A lot of resources flowed into physics, and it was an exciting period. I also studied Russian for two years because it looked important in those days. Physics was exciting, and I went off to graduate school in ‘61 at Duke University and graduated with a Ph.D. in ‘66. There was a concerted effort to get people into the sciences, and I was ready to start my career as a physicist.

Q: Is there any particular reason why you chose theoretical nuclear physics?

It was a very exciting and active field. When I went to Duke, they hired a guy who transferred from Rice University. At the age of 40, he was the youngest full-time professor at Duke. In those days they were more conservative about promotion. He had a very big, active group, and I liked the idea of working with them. I was always interested in theory since I am not much of a practical man.

I don’t know if I should tell you this story: The department chair at Duke, who was an experimental nuclear physicist, called me in one day. He said, “You’re doing pretty well in your courses. Have you thought about experimental nuclear physics? If you’re smart enough to do well in the theory courses and you have some experimental skills, you can really be outstanding. Whereas, if you stay in theory, you’re competing with a lot of other smart and maybe it’s not the best deal for you.” I replied, “Thank you, but I will stick with theory.”

Q: What would you say is your single, best accomplishment, and why are you proud of it?

At a crucial time at Ohio University in the development of the Physics & Astronomy Department, I helped raise the department to a higher standard and increase the size of the faculty. I didn’t do it alone, of course. I was chair from 1990-2005, aside from a two-year term as Faculty Senate Chair. It was during this time we hired some really good people. While I didn’t directly hire them, I was involved in the interviews and complete hiring process. I also managed to help some people in the department who had gotten a bit stale to reactivate their research programs.  So, I think the whole research environment improved quite a lot while I was chair. That’s probably the thing I am most proud of.

Q: How do you think you managed to do that?

I like to suggest things and encourage people to try things on their own. If someone came to me with an idea, doing something or creating something, and it wasn’t too crazy, I tended to support it and tried to help it succeed. I also tried to keep up with what was going on. I read Science, and I tried to educate myself in the other research areas in the department such as condensed matter, non-linear dynamics and astronomy. That way, when I talked to faculty in those areas, I knew what I was talking about, at least somewhat.

I also kept my eyes open for opportunities to build the department’s reputation. I happened to see an article in Science one day. It was written by a Ph.D. of ours that had switched into molecular structure in biology. His name was Venki Ramakrishnan. I realized it was an important result, so I nominated him for outstanding alumni from the College of Arts & Sciences. After some hassle, he got it. He showed up two to three years later and gave a very nice colloquium attended by faculty and students from several departments. Two years after that, he got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I was always looking for opportunities for the Physics & Astronomy Department to develop. I also helped create the Condensed Matter and Surface Science program and the Institute of Nuclear Particle Physics.

Q: The Condensed Matter and Surface Science program and the Institute of Nuclear Particle Physics have been going for a solid 25-plus years. What do you think makes these groups so successful?

When interdisciplinary programs were all the rage, they were top-down directed by the administration. “You shall do interdisciplinary research if you want additional research funding.” I was somewhat opposed to such a top-down approach, but I will admit that the CMSS program, which was created under this pressure, has been very successful. CMSS involved Chemistry, Physics, several Engineering departments, and initially a faculty member from Human and Health Science. We added two new faculty members to the department in addition to creating new research assistantships with the CMSS funding. A number of very successful research collaborations across departments and colleges have resulted.

The INPP was less interdisciplinary in that it was mostly nuclear physics: theory and experiment, and astronomy. Forming an institute was very successful once it created more interaction among its members including joint seminars, additional research funds, and a larger national presence. Following these successful initiatives, members of the departmental faculty formed additional institutes that have also had great success.

What makes these institutes and programs so successful is faculty working together to investigate overlapping problems and to the pooling of resources to provide more opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

Q: You’ve helped a lot of people do their doctoral research, Ph.Ds. I know you’ve done a lot with German students specifically.

The American Ph.D. program in the sciences has become the model for most of the world. However, in working with international students, you have to be aware of the differences in their educational background. Obviously, since they are now in the American system, they have to conform to certain standards, but you shouldn’t get carried away with details of exactly what courses they have to take and so forth. Most of these international students are pretty good since they are among the best from their home country, and we are quite careful in admitting them to our program.

Getting the first German students was a bit of an accident. Again, it was an example of taking advantage of an opportunity. I was in Mainz, Germany on sabbatical for a year, and I got to know quite a few Germans on all levels. I had a Fulbright and was called to Bonn to sit on a panel. They had German students who wanted to come to the U.S. for one year on a Fulbright and then return to Germany to finish their degrees. I and some other people were to judge them based on their English conversation ability. Only about half of an excellent group was going to be selected. So, we interviewed them, and I discovered they were unaware that it was possible to go to the U.S. and be fully supported as a graduate student. They just didn’t know this whereas it was very well known among Chinese students.

Q: Can you just talk briefly about all the students you’ve helped develop?

I personally directed 13 students in their doctoral research. A very international group: Three from India, two from Germany and the USA each, and one from China, Taiwan, Korea, Bangladesh, Romania and Costa Rica. So, a big mix. In our program, we have several core graduate courses, and I taught one of these for many years; Classical Electrodynamics. Many students are drawn to a professor’s particular style of teaching, and these core classes offered in the first and second year are an excellent means or attracting prospective graduate students.

Graduate students are under more pressure these days to start thinking about what area they would like to work in and with which professor. So they are encouraged to go talk with prospective faculty advisers and to attend presentations of faculty about their research, and to talk with older students already working with various faculty members. Of course, faculty with research grants that provide support for graduate students have some advantages.

My colleague, David Onley, and I had a research grant for many years, and we could afford to support three graduate research assistants once they were past the first two years in our program. I was not overly rigid in how I work with my students. I had one student who didn’t show up in his office until about four o’clock in the afternoon. He worked much of the night. He was very smart and turned out very good work. If I had insisted he come in by nine, I don’t think it would have worked. I believe in letting people fly their own way as long as they produce.

Q: And that’s worked out most of the time?

Yes. In fact, I took on three doctoral students who had started with someone else and it wasn’t working out, and then they got their Ph.Ds. with me. They went on to have pretty good careers.

Q: In your opinion, what is the most important thing an aspiring scientist should know? 

I don’t know if there is a single thing, but you need to master the fundamentals of your field and find questions to investigate that you are really interested in. I found it to be very useful to read widely in my field, attend conferences and colloquia and talk with others about possible areas of research. A lesson that I have learned is that many questions turn out to be interesting and can lead to great results.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Optimism is very important. Building a good department is bringing people and resources together—to create a spirit of cohesion and purpose. Of course, there are occasion squabbles that could become ugly. In-fighting within departments is not uncommon and often destructive. But our department maintained unity even in hard times by respecting each other’s work.

A lot of leadership is keeping your ears open and trying to head off conflicts before they get too serious. The department has seen that this works pretty well, so they’ve continued to do it. I think the future of the department looks very bright.

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