APPLETON, WIS. — Scientists David Cook and John Brandenberger arrived on the Lawrence University campus within three years of each other. And for the past 40 years, they have been synonymous with physics and physics education at Lawrence.
Now they’re ready to take a collective curtain call, having successfully transformed their department into a nationally-recognized model of undergraduate physics education.
Cook, Philetus E. Sawyer Professor of Science and Brandenberger, Alice G. Chapman Professor of Physics, will have their combined 83 years of teaching service recognized with professor emeritus status Sunday, June 15 as retiring faculty at Lawrence’s 159th commencement. They each will receive honorary master of arts degrees, ad eundem, as part of the graduation ceremonies that begin at 10:30 a.m. on the Main Hall green.
After joining the faculty in the mid-1960s — Cook in 1965, Brandenberger in 1968 — the two soon forged a friendship and partnership as the architects of an innovative initiative based on the concept of “signature programs” designed to make Lawrence distinctive. After four decades, they depart with pride in knowing “mission accomplished.”
“The initial motivation was the desire to work with larger numbers of students. In order to attract more students, we needed to have something that was unusual, something that wasn’t available at many places, if any,” said Cook. “We sought some funding and ended up getting more than we might have dreamed possible. That allowed us to move quickly in creating a couple of exciting programs that we used to attract larger numbers of good students.”
With the support of nearly $2 million in grants from national foundations, private businesses and other sources, Brandenberger and Cook parlayed vision, enthusiasm, innovation and their respective research interests in laser spectroscopy and computational physics into two high-tech laboratories that became the foundation of the department’s signature programs.
The ensuing result produced a dramatic spike in student interest and national recognition — collectively and individually — along the way. Of the nearly 600 colleges and universities in the country that award undergraduate degrees in physics, only six percent of them graduate five or more physics majors a year. Lawrence will graduate 14 physics majors this year, an all-time high and a projected-record 17 next year.
In 1998, Lawrence was showcased as a “case study” on undergraduate physics education at the national “Physics Revitalization Conference: Building Undergraduate Physics Programs for the 21st Century” in Arlington, Va. Through their collective efforts, Lawrence’s physics program also was profiled in the book “Academic Excellence,” and was included in the Physics Today article, “Why Many Undergraduate Physics Programs Are Good but Few Are Great.”
After working collaboratively for so long, it’s not surprising that they are members of each other’s mutual admiration society.
“It would be difficult to find a more conscientious colleague, with such high standards,” Brandenberger said of Cook. “The dedication, conscientiousness, the giving of extra time to the program and to the students are all David Cook hallmarks.”
“John is a fabulous colleague. We work well together,” Cook echoed. “John steadfastly encouraged my efforts in the computational direction and did yeoman’s service in editing and commenting on the proposals that I had written to the foundations that provided funding.”
Both point to their interactions and relationships with students as highlights of their storied careers.
“We like to think that we made a difference in the lives of a fair number of students, and in my mind, that’s the most important thing that we’ve accomplished,” said Cook, a long-time area church organist who often taught a class on the physics of music. “When certain students were here, we were mentors for them. But in many cases, those students have gone on to significant careers of their own. The tables were turned and those students have come back and been mentors for us.”
“That role reversal has been very important,” added Brandenberger, a model train aficionado when he’s not in his “laser palace” lab. “Seeing students leave Lawrence, develop very impressive careers and after 20 or 25 years get back together with them and be on the receiving end, living through them, savoring their successes, is very special. What better way to have spent a career, to have spent a life, than to feel you have played some role in shaping their success.”
Brandenberger has enjoyed an award-filled 40-year teaching career that began after earning his Ph.D. at Brown University. He was presented Lawrence’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 1995 and was the initial recipient in 2006 of the college’s new Excellence in Scholarship or Creativity Award. He became the first — and only — physicist in Lawrence history to be elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for research at the Institute of Electronic Structure and Lasers in Greece and was recognized by his undergraduate alma mater, Carleton College, with its distinguished alumni achievement award in 2001.
Along the way he served stints as a visiting professor at such prestigious universities as Harvard, Oxford and M.I.T.
Cook’s important contributions to the study of physics have earned him his share of honors as well, most notably his 2007 election as vice president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, a four-year appointment to the executive board that will see him serve as the association’s president in 2010. The AAPT is the world’s leading organization for physics educators with more than 12,000 members in 30 countries.
While leading the development and incorporation of computers into the physics curriculum, Cook wrote two textbooks “The Theory of the Electromagnetic Field,” one of the first to introduce computer-based numerical approaches alongside traditional approaches and “Computation and Problem Solving in Undergraduate Physics.” In 1990, Cook, too, was recognized with the college’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
“I thought I would be here two or three years and then move on,” said Cook, who earned his doctorate in physics from Harvard in 1965 and started at Lawrence the following fall. “But I discovered that Lawrence is a very special place, partly because the academic program is strong, but mostly because of the relationships among the people — students, faculty, administrators and even the relationship with the town.”
While both will maintain offices on campus in retirement and still occasionally teach a class, having been at the center of the action for so long, a sense of melancholy about turning over the keys to the store is understandable.
“It is difficult to distance ourselves,” Brandenberger admitted as he looks to his soon-to-be professor emeritus status. “We were workaholics for so many years and took pride in what emerged as the result of that work. It’s going to be hard to completely pass it on to our younger colleagues.”