Egret Home   Spring 2004
Volume 10, Number 2
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School of Science and Computer Engineering



More than just math & science. Up-and-coming prof takes on physics program.

Ask David Garrison about his musical career and he just laughs. As faculty chair and assistant professor of physics, Garrison has a lot of other things on his mind. A quick glance at his curriculum vitae shows exactly what occupies his time, but in one line on the last page of the CV, Garrison mentions that in high school he was an improvisational soloist in his high school jazz band and a curious mind wants to know if he still plays.

“No,” he answers emphatically. “I have a very basic appreciation of jazz music, but I’ve completely forgotten how to read music myself. The trombone was something I played a long time ago.”

More than just math and science
THE NTH DEGREE: When graduate physics student Cindi Ballard (l) moved to the Houston area in 2002, she was thrilled to find out about the proposed physics program at UHCL — a program that Assistant Professor of Physics David Garrison (r) continues to build as faculty chair.

However, it’s interesting to note how his choice of instruments specifically ties in with his love of physics since it requires vibrations, longitudinal sound waves, frequencies and airflow. But Garrison would argue that everything has to do with physics, not just trombones. In fact, it was this realization that led him to study physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology even though he originally planned to study aerospace engineering.

“Before I went to college, I read and studied quite a bit,” notes Garrison. “I was going to be either an aerospace engineer or a physicist, but I saw that everything an engineer did used physics.”

David Garrison

A love for the science quickly developed, with Garrison immediately pursuing a Ph.D. and eventually making his way to UHCL. The university hired him as a visiting assistant professor and as interim chair of physical sciences, but in just a year, Garrison became faculty chair of the newly approved physics program and was promoted to a tenure-track assistant professorship.

“There were some professors at the university already working on the physics program, and I took it from there,” says Garrison. “I felt like we needed data to find out exactly what the students were looking for.”

So, Garrison did just that. He developed a survey and has worked to design a program that could be beneficial to everyone.

He’s definitely doing something right, and physics student Cindi Ballard can attest to that. A former bookkeeper, Ballard’s interest in physics came much later than Garrison’s. Ballard was 36 when she decided to attend a community college in Virginia.

After completing her core courses and moving to New Mexico, Ballard was forced to decide on a primary field of study. Her husband’s suggestion had no appeal to her.
“He thought I should go into accounting,” says Ballard. “But I had been a bookkeeper for so long that I wanted to do something different. I decided on astrophysics.”

The degree choice perplexed her friends and family at first, but after a few classes, she was certain it was the right choice. With a bachelor’s degree in tow, she and her husband relocated to Texas in 2002 because of his job. She took a semester off and searched for the right graduate program to fit her needs. Once she heard about UHCL’s proposed master of science in physics program, she knew that it would be the one.

“I looked at other programs in the area,” adds Ballard. “But I wasn’t ready to go full time. UHCL’s proposed program would allow me to go part time.”

Ballard has taken an active student role by pulling together study groups with her peers and assisting Garrison as needed. She, after all, fits the student profile of most students in the program as well as the university as a whole.

“We are preparing a lot of nontraditional students for doctoral study and advanced re-search,” says Garrison, who emphasizes how many directions a physics degree can go.
Although many physics students continue their education, the American Institute of Physics cites that the majority of people holding a master’s degree in physics are employed as managers, engineers, scientists or in computer or math fields.
One of Garrison’s current projects with the physics program is conducting a feasibility study for the development of a professional science master’s degree, which combines business with physics.

“The idea is that there are students who are not interested in academia, but they want to be project managers,” explains Garrison. “They get the core physics courses, giving them a physics background that allows them to solve technical problems, and they combine that knowledge with business administration skills.”

Problem-solving skills are something Garrison believes is missing for many master of business administration students. He asserts that many can benefit from a combined program especially if they hope to rise to leadership and management positions.
“We’re contacting industry leaders, chief executive officers and such, to develop the program,” says Garrison. “This degree does not qualify a person to be a chief technical officer, but will help him or her manage projects more effectively.”

Other initiatives keeping Garrison busy include building a structure for the physics program that promotes students working together in teams, as well as trying to create an institute for high school students to help them learn more about what people can do with physics. He also closely examines area doctoral physics programs to ensure that UHCL students are well prepared should they want to further their education.

In addition, Garrison is considering a guest lecture series that would become a forum for local space science research and allow public school teachers to earn continuing professional education hours.

When Garrison has a rare spare moment, his research with NASA Johnson Space Center fills the time. His primary focus is on the development of doubly special relativity, a new theory that modifies special relativity to include a second invariant scale. Other research topics include numerical relativity and numerical cosmology as well as collaboration with the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory’s VASMIR project for the development of a plasma rocket engine.

With all of these plans, Garrison also enjoys teaching the classes that are part of his busy schedule and his passion for the subject spills over to his students.
As Ballard eagerly points out, “If you really want to know ‘why’ then physics is for you.”

And this kind of enthusiasm from just one of his students is music to Garrison’s ears.

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