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The Carletonian

Olaf Woos Two Carleton Physics Professors

<hysics Professor Jay Tasson’s three-year contract at Carleton ends later this year, Junior Ben Levy will be sad to see him go.

It was in Professor Tasson’s Classical Mechanics course that Levy decided to become a physics major. “I’ve never been in another physics course where everyone was so excited,” he said.

But Professor Tasson won’t be far away when he begins his new job next fall. In fact, his future office is less than two miles from Olin Hall.

Professor Tasson will be one of two former Carleton physics professors joining the faculty at St. Olaf College. The other, Professor Matt Wiebold, plans to leave a tenure-track teaching position at St. John’s University, which he has held since leaving Carleton last year.

A theoretical physicist, Professor Tasson came to Carleton in 2011, only a year after completing his doctorate. He was hired to replace Professor Arjendu Pattanayak, who was serving a three-year term as Associate Dean of the College.

Levy said Professor Tasson’s ability to engage a class stemmed from his “nerdy sense of humor” and ability to explain tough concepts.

Yet, as Professor Tasson’s teaching visitation came to an end, he began looking for a job elsewhere. “A big consideration was finding a job in a location that worked out for my wife,” he said. Because his wife, a medical physicist at the Mayo Clinic, specializes in Proton Therapy, an uncommon type of cancer treatment, he began by drawing a circle around Rochester. It extended all the way to Luther College in Iowa and Winona State University near the Wisconsin border.

But taking a job just across the Cannon River turned out to be the perfect solution.

“For the same reasons I picked Carleton, St. Olaf is a good fit for me,” Professor Tasson said. He spent a day on St. Olaf’s campus after reading about an adjunct teaching position online and found that it shared many strengths with Carleton. The professors, he said, seemed to value mentoring and teaching as much as doing their own research. And on the physics department website, he found many descriptions of student-faculty research.

Meanwhile, Professor Wiebold, who will be replacing a retiring professor, was attracted to St. Olaf for similar reasons–he liked that faculty were looking for new and better ways to engage students and teach science. And he wanted a job close to his wife’s family in Mankato.

In Tasson and Weibold, the St. Olaf hiring committee snagged its top picks for the open positions, according to St. Olaf Professor Brian Borovsky, who chairs the physics department.

But the department isn’t just attracting good professors, it’s also attracting an unusual number of students. From the 1980s until the early 2000s, its average number of graduates was 12.5 per year. “That’s considered thriving,” Professor Borovsky said. But since 2012, the average has been closer to 30 graduates–more than at any other liberal arts college in the nation, according to Professor Borovsky.

“There’s a nationwide swing in physics majors, but at St. Olaf it has been dramatic,” he said. “So something else must be going on.”

Part of the attraction, according to St. Olaf sophomore Owen Puls, is the college’s new, $63 million science building. “It’s pretty visible that Olaf is putting a lot of money into the sciences,” he said. “Seeing that tangible commitment really convinced me that Olaf was a good place for me.”

The college opened its new, LEED Platinum-Certified building in 2008, the same year 76 freshmen signed up for a physics course targeted at potential majors–an unprecedented number, Professor Borovsky said.

Even the untrained eye can tell, from walking through Regents Hall, that the physics department has its fair share of gizmos, among them an Atomic Force Microscope and a Quantic Optics Machine. In a lab, students are building robots out of PVC pipe to measure methane levels in St. Olaf’s natural lands.

Professor Borovsky said the recent wave of physics students is especially interested in physics’ practical uses: fighting climate change and upgrading the nation’s infrastructure, for instance. Hiring Professor Weibold, whose doctorate is in electrical engineering, was especially appealing because of his background. “[Professor Wiebold’s] specialty is plasma in rocket propulsion,” Professor Borovsky said. “Our students will love that.”

In addition to hiring Professor Wiebold, the department has been tilting its focus toward applied sciences, which in turn attracted Professor Wiebold to the department. Last January, the department offered a course in which groups of students designed machines to help local companies. For a local popsicle company, one group built a machine that places popsicle sticks into molds.

This emphasis on applied physics, Wiebold said, distinguishes St. Olaf from Carleton. Each has a unique strength: biophysics and engineering at St. Olaf, and astronomy at Carleton.

Professor Wiebold envisions more “cross-cannon collaboration” next year, thanks to he and Professor Tasson’s connections to both departments. He hopes, for instance, to borrow a set of circuit boards that Carleton Professor Melissa Eblen-Zayas bought for an electronics class.

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