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.”
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
“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.”
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
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
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
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
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.