Teacher, Mentor, Researcher, Friend: Alumni Praise Professor Gordon Jones

Once he starts naming students whom he feels especially good about mentoring over the years, he has a hard time stopping. “I guess I’ve been very blessed with really good students,” says Gordon Jones, Hamilton’s Stone Professor of Natural History and Professor of Physics.

Likewise those former students have a hard time stopping when asked to talk about Jones. They keep him up to speed on their careers. They’ve invited him to their weddings. Some Zoom with him just for fun. They repeat stories about the quarter jar, into which Jones would drop a coin when a student caught him making a mistake before the professor himself caught it. Eventually Jones would use the money to buy Cider Mill donuts or another reward.

They consider it fitting that the American Physical Society recently awarded Jones its 2021 Prize for a Faculty Member for Research in an Undergraduate Institution. The prize recognizes recipients for their contributions to physics and to students’ professional development.

Here, six former Hamilton physics majors share how Jones, in the lab and beyond it, helped shape their futures.

I still remember the first [research] task that Gordon assigned me was to write some computer programs to analyze data coming out of an experiment he was working on. That was the first time I got to combine my two favorite things: physics and programming! I was immediately hooked, and I spent the next two years working with Gordon, including two summer research projects. During this time I had the opportunity to work on multiple projects and collaborate with research teams that spanned across the East Coast. I even got the chance to visit Argonne National Labs in Chicago and the National Institute for Science and Technology in Washington D.,C.
— M. Freddie Dias ’06
Software engineer, Uber Advanced Technologies Center

I am very appreciative of Gordon’s approach to mentoring. He was always encouraging, giving me time to figure things out on my own without pressure, but ready and willing to jump in and provide guidance when needed. Gordon created a research opportunity for me that aligned well with both his ongoing research and my career interest in electronics. Doing research helped me build a solid understanding of the key principles we learned in the classroom. You can attend lectures and read textbooks, but there’s no substitute for the hands-on experience research opportunities provide. I came away from my senior year with a very strong understanding of spin exchange optical pumping and a strong interest in physics. After graduating, I spent another three years obtaining engineering degrees, but my first job out of school can be directly attributed to the project I worked on in Gordon’s lab.
— Valerie Hanson ’10
Electrical engineer, Facebook
Bachelor’s and Master’s, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth

Gordon and I had traveled down to the National Institute for Science and Technology for a few days and were working late (this is a common theme of doing research with Gordon). He left to drive back to Hamilton, and I had stayed to finish setting up some customized power supplies developed at Hamilton. At some point, I discovered a problem with the power supplies and called Gordon. If these power supplies didn’t work, the experiment would be delayed, and I was the last Hamilton person around. Gordon didn’t hesitate, we agreed on the likely problem, and he gave me (an undergraduate student working at a multimillion-dollar government research facility) the go-ahead to open up the power supplies and fix the problem with the internal electronics.

This story really encapsulates what it’s like being a student of Gordon’s. First, he has an unshakable confidence in your abilities. I have seen a lot of professors and undergraduate researchers in my physics career, and all of them would have turned the car around and gone back to the lab rather than trust their student to fix the equipment and “save” the experiment. But Gordon knew I had spent months working next to those power supplies in the lab at Hamilton and put it in my hands. Second, Gordon always has a way of injecting humor into physics, even the accidental kind.
— William Bauder ’10
Physicist, Government Accountability Office
Ph.D. in nuclear physics, University of Notre Dame

My work with Gordon influenced my desire to go to physics grad school. I was never particularly excited by the theory behind it, but I loved the research aspect of physics — designing experiments, physically building them, and analyzing the data that came out all contributed to my love of real-world problem solving. If I hadn’t worked with Gordon (and Professor of Physics Brian Collett), I wouldn’t have gone to grad school at all or ended up in Seattle!

My experience with him as a professor and teacher also really affected how I view teaching in general. During and after grad school I was a tutor, and Gordon’s influence on how I learned physics really helped me be a better math and science teacher. I also received the best first-year TA award — and I largely took cues on how I taught from Gordon and Brian and Ann Silversmith. [Silversmith is now Litchfield Professor of Astronomy Emerita.]
— Kerkira Stockton ’14
Software engineer, Accolade
Master’s degree in physics, University of Washington

By my second year [at Hamilton], when I was finally declaring a physics major, I still did not think I would be pursuing physics grad school or as a career. I constantly told people, “IF I would go to grad school it would be in engineering, because I want to do something applied.” In retrospect, I had not had any real exposure to experimental physics, and so only knew the world of classes and equations. Gordon must have seen that misunderstanding within me, as he encouraged me to pursue a summer research experience with his former collaborators at the National Institute for Science and Technology. Having only been exposed to undergraduate kinematics or quantum mechanics lab classes, I had no idea what an amazing place a national lab was. Every day I was speaking and working with these friendly and fun people who all loved physics. It was during that first summer at NIST that I realized what it could mean to become a physics Ph.D., and in doing so I was finally convinced (something I imagine Gordon viewed secretly as a victory).
— Joelle Baer Corrigan ’16
NSF graduate research fellow, grad student in experimental quantum computing, University of Wisconsin - Madison

My [research] project was fairly unique — I knew coming into my first year that I wanted to pursue grad school in meteorology, and Gordon was one of the first professors I talked to about this. He was incredibly helpful over my four years at Hamilton, ultimately culminating in this summer research (which would later become my senior thesis) focused on meteorology. It would have been much easier for him, and the rest of the Physics Department for that matter, to nudge me toward a project that was more in his area of expertise: No research experience is bad research experience after all. … But instead, he and Brian Collett helped me coordinate with a local meteorologist … to do a research project in my field of interest.
— Michael Hosek ’19
Master’s student in meteorology, University of Oklahoma

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