Physics department faculty rejoicing in
exceptional graduating class

By David F. Salisbury
Published: August 4, 2004

Melanie Bernard
Photo by Steve Green
Megan O’Grady

Five years ago, high school student Megan O'Grady and her mother visited Vanderbilt to see if this is where she wanted to go to college. The two of them ran into John Wikswo in an elevator and he spent more than an hour showing them around.

It proved to be an excellent investment on the part of Wikswo, who is the Gordon A. Cain University Professor, Professor of Physics, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics. Not only did O'Grady come to Vanderbilt, she worked in Wikswo's laboratory from her freshman year and this spring she is graduating with high honors with a double major in physics and math. She has been accepted for graduate study at Harvard and has received fellowships both from Harvard and the National Science Foundation.

In most years, O'Grady would have been a total stand-out in the physics department, which graduates an average of nine physics majors each year. This year, however, she is sharing the limelight with a number of her classmates. Mikel Barry and Adam Bryant, also double math and physics majors, shared the department's Underwood Award, given to its top graduates. Both Barry and Bryant are headed to the University of California, Berkeley for advanced study: Barry with a Department of Defense fellowship. By virtue of adding a minor in astronomy to his physics degree, James Schlaerth, won the department's Cathey award given to the top astronomy graduate.

“In a small department like ours, when you graduate one star student, it makes everything seem worthwhile,” said Paul Sheldon, the associate professor of physics who has served as director of undergraduate studies for the last five years. “This year we have six excellent graduates, four of whom are absolute super-stars.”

Gary Gilliland
Photo by Daniel Dubois
Four members of the physics class of 2004: Megan O’Grady, lower left, Mikel Barry, lower right; Daniel Simmons, upper left; and, Adam Pugh, upper right.

Out of this year's nine graduates, five are honors scholars in Arts & Sciences. Two received Goldwater Scholarships in a national competition and two received A&S McMinn fellowships. Seven are going to graduate school. One of them, Adam Pugh, is shifting from physics to law and has been offered full-ride scholarships by the law schools at Harvard and Stanford. The two who aren't headed for advanced degrees are both going into the U.S. Navy: Daniel Simons was sent to the university by the Navy and Alden Smith signed up for NROTC. Jeffrey Herbstman, a joint major who is graduating from the College of Engineering, turned down offers from Yale and Cornell to go to the University of Michigan.

Megan O'Grady came to Vanderbilt from Glenelg, Maryland from an academic family. Her father is a professor of psychology. She got interested in science through a fascination with astronomy. She also had a “really good math teacher” who did things like take his students on field trips to local engineering firms. Wikswo's influence helped her decide to concentrate on biophysics. At Harvard, she will be studying with Kit Parker, one of Wikswo's former students, and will be working on “biomems” – microscopic electro-mechanical devices designed for use with biological systems.

Mikel Barry's choice for college came down to Brown versus Vanderbilt. The Louisville, Kentucky native didn't decide in favor of Vanderbilt because of academics, but because of the location. When she's not solving equations, she plays the guitar and writes folk rock songs and the opportunity to come to “ Music City ” was the deciding factor, she said. Although she had always found physics interesting, when she arrived on campus she was more interested in math. It was Paul Sheldon's introductory physics class that converted her. She sought Sheldon's advice when she couldn't decide what type of physics to pursue, so he arranged for her to interview a number of the physics professors and ask what she would be doing if she worked with them. She hit it off with Norman Tolk, who directs the Vanderbilt Center for Atomic and Molecular Physics at Surfaces, and began her studies of materials research that led to the DOD fellowship. She considered Harvard and Princeton for graduate school, but decided that it would be more comfortable to pursue her extracurricular interests in addition to academics at Berkeley than at the other campuses.

To Adam Bryant going into physics just seemed natural. His father is a mechanical engineer in Tullahoma, Tennessee. His college decision came down to Vanderbilt or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Given the difference in the national rankings of the two schools, it might not have seemed like much of a choice, Bryant acknowledged. “But when I visited Vanderbilt, I was really impressed by the physics department and I think I made the right choice,” he said. Bryant intends to study theoretical particle physics, particularly string theory, at UC Berkeley.

While Barry and Bryant are headed to California, James Schlaerth comes from the Golden State; specifically, from Pasadena. He went to school with the sons and daughters of a number of professors at the California Institute of Technology. He became interested in astronomy by attending public nights at telescopes at Caltech and city college that was nearby and said that he thoroughly enjoyed high school physics. When it came to choose a college, however, he gave locations outside of California top priority. “I had never been out of California and I wanted to see what else was out there,” he said. “I wanted something that was different, and Vanderbilt was different.” When he arrived on campus, he fell under the sway of assistant professor of astronomy Robert Knop and Paul Sheldon, whose field is high energy particle physics. Schlaerth's continuing wanderlust led him to attend a summer school on galaxy evolution at the Vatican Observatory in Rome, which he described as “one of the greatest experiences in my life.” As a result, he intends to pursue this line of inquiry when he goes to CU Boulder next fall.

“We've never had anything quite like this group,” confirmed David Weintraub, associate professor of astronomy. “Most years we get one, maybe two students into top schools like Cornell or Harvard. But to have so many students admitted to top-ten graduate programs just knocks my socks off!”

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Department of Physics & Astronomy undergraduate program


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