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Votes of Confidence

Written by Mike Thee
August 15, 2011

As a sign of the College of Science and Engineering’s growing strength, its faculty have received more than $750,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation in recent weeks. 

Paul Fontana and David Boness of the physics department received $581,800 for the new Boscovich Physics Scholars Program, while John Carter of the mathematics department has secured a $168,822 for research on waves.

Expanding access  

The award received by Fontana and Boness is a five-year commitment that provides scholarships of up to $10,000 per year, renewable up to four years, for at least 16 SU students enrolled in physics or physics/engineering courses of study. SU’s program is one of just 80 funded out of the 363 proposals received for the NSF S-STEM (Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program. 

“We in the Ph

  
 Associate Professor of Physics Paul Fontana, left, works with high school students during last year's PhysFest at SU. With funding from NSF, the university is in a better position to enroll excellent students wanting to study physics. 
ysics Department have very academically qualified applicants who often choose other colleges and universities giving more enticing merit-based financial aid packages,” says Boness, professor and chair of physics. “The NSF grant should help us land more of the top prospects in physics. It is a very efficient grant, with nearly all of the funds going to students and their families.” 

Fontana agrees, having witnessed too many instances in which a qualified applicant has to forego an SU science or engineering education for financial reasons. “Two years ago the physics department began offering PhysFest, a workshop for SU applicants in science and engineering designed to showcase our department and invite the participants to consider enrolling at SU as physics majors,” the associate professor of physics says. “We conduct a survey at the end of the workshop to assess its effectiveness, and both times have had a number of responses suggesting that the participant loved our program but couldn’t afford to come here.”

A Jesuit tradition continued 

The Boscovich Scholars Program is named for an 18th century Jesuit, Roger Boscovich, S.J.

“The Jesuits have a strong history of scholars in what we would now call STEM fields, and among them Boscovich is perhaps the most distinguished,” Fontana says. “He is widely acknowledged as a significant figure in the history of science, and appeared on all denominations of Croatian currency (his homeland) from 1990 to 1994. We wanted the program to highlight the traditional consonance of physics with Jesuit education and scholarship.”

Fontana adds that the launch of the Boscovich Scholars program in 2011 coincides with the 300th anniversary of its namesake’s birth. “Who knows—perhaps his intercession had something to do with our success in winning the grant!” he says wryly.

As Fontana sees it, the grant will also “build on the physics department's ongoing efforts to establish ourselves as a regional and national leader in undergraduate physics education” and address a national priority, too: “It has been recognized that America is no longer producing the number and quality of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields we need to maintain a competitive science and technology work force. Reversing that trend is a national priority identified by both the Bush and Obama administrations and in the America COMPETES acts of 2007 and 2010, and the NSF S-STEM program is specifically designed to help address that issue.”

Making waves 

Meanwhile, over in the Department of Mathematics, Associate Professor John Carter is putting his $168,822 NSF award to work to study the behavior of waves, particularly surface waves propagating on water and waves in shallow water. Th

  
With new NSF funding, Associate Professor of Mathematics John Carter is collaborating with colleagues at other institutions and undergraduates at SU to study waves. 
e research is expected to yield a variety of practical applications. As one example, Carter is seekingto develop a model for “ predicting dangerous versus benign tsunamis” based on “the Richter-scale measure of the responsible earthquake and some readily available information about the geology of its location.”  

And potential applications are not just limited to ocean waves. Carter also expects the mathematical results of his research “to describe nonlinear waves in several settings, including light waves in an optical fiber, spin waves in a thin magnetic film and others.” 

Carter is collaborating on the research with faculty at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Colorado. He will also be significantly involving SU undergraduates over the next three years. Two students at a time will work with Carter during the summers and academic years.I usually work with juniors and seniors because they have the necessary mathematical background,” Carter says. “In the past I have worked with math, physics, and engineering majors.”