Meeting the Challenges of Oxford
Two Alleghenians Study Cutting-Edge Physics at an Ancient University
by Doug McInnis
To anyone who has seen it, Oxford University looks as much like a museum as a great university. Its ancient buildings form a skyline of arches, domes, and spires that suggest the era when all-powerful kings ruled England.
But Oxford, founded in the twelfth century, is one of the world’s great universities. Its alumni include Lawrence of Arabia, Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, and Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. Another alumnus, Stephen Hawking, has become the most renowned physicist since Einstein for his work with the mysterious space phenomena called Black Holes.
And now Oxford is a regular stop for some of Allegheny’s top students. A new program allocates a minimum of two spots annually for juniors to spend a year there. Last year, Allegheny sent two physics majors—Ibrahim Sulai and Greg Schivley—to study in one of the toughest undergraduate physics programs in the world.
Ibrahim Sulai ’04
At first, Ibrahim Sulai felt the same way that most of us might feel as we arrived to study at Oxford—like a tourist. There he was, standing amidst ornate halls of learning that predated the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World, and walking down streets once traveled by Oxford students who went on to number among the world’s great statesmen, writers, and scientists.
He found himself visiting Oxford’s Iffley Road running track, where Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Sulai is a multiple letter winner in track and cross-country at Allegheny and one of the College’s top distance runners.
As he settled in, the feeling of being a tourist humbled by his surroundings began to disappear. “It became the place where I studied and ate dinner,” he says. And if he needed a reminder that Oxford was in some ways a little like the rest of the world, he didn’t have to look far. There, among venerable stone and brick buildings, was a McDonald’s.
But in many other ways, Sulai found that Oxford wasn’t like other colleges. Oxford is a collection of colleges—nearly fifty of them—which operate under one university banner. Sulai attended St. Peter’s College, which was founded in 1929, and is among the newer colleges at an ancient university.
Sulai’s roundabout journey to Oxford began in his hometown of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. After boarding school in Nigeria, he wanted to attend college in the United States, but he knew little about American higher education. He was familiar with Duke University and planned to go there. But an official in the U.S. embassy in Abuja had suggested he also apply to Allegheny.
When Allegheny came through with a terrific scholarship package—a great help to a family that was about to have four children in college—he was off to Meadville.
At Allegheny, he benefited from considerable attention from his professors, as well as the college’s practice of involving science majors in faculty research. He is now working with physics professor Dan Willey on experiments that simulate the chemistry found in clouds of gas in the regions between stars.
“He’s a natural,” says Willey. “He’s sort of wired for physics. Ibrahim really wants to understand what’s going on in physics even if it won’t help his grade. I’ll say, ‘You don’t really need to know this for the test.’ But he just wants to know. The wheels are always turning.”
Despite this training, Oxford still proved difficult. British schools are often more advanced than American colleges, and at Oxford, which has many of Britain’s top physics prospects, the pace is torrid. Sulai spent eight hours a day studying, in addition to classes.
Physics students from St. Peter’s take science classes with physics students from Oxford’s other colleges. But the tutors, who work closely with St. Peter’s students, are assigned exclusively to St. Peter’s. These tutors are world-class physics researchers in their own right, but they take time for one-on-one weekly discussion sessions with the college’s physics majors. The tutorials—called tutes in British vernacular—are a costly extra, and are found at only a few of Britain’s universities.
Visiting Oxford students get no grades. They either pass or fail based on the quality of their work, as judged by their tutors. “The beauty of the system was that the tutors were there to help us learn, not to examine or evaluate,” Sulai says. “Realizing that was very liberating.
“My primary tutor was Dr. Steve Rawlings. He is an astrophysicist and a person who loved what he did. We met once a week to discuss my progress in electromagnetism [a field that covers electricity and such things as the waves that allow us to take x-rays, listen to the radio, or watch television]. He helped bring it to life, for he seemed to be far less concerned about the numerical answers. He urged us to think through the problems ‘physically.’ Being a visiting student, I wasn’t very constrained by the syllabus, and Dr. Rawlings was always willing to branch off on a tangent and discuss related issues, even if they weren’t going to be on the examinations.”
But Oxford offered more than academics. “Being a cross-country runner, I found good company at the Oxford University Cross Country Club and the Oxford University Athletics Club. I fit in quickly, competing for St. Peter’s, and even for the university on a number of occasions.”
Oxford also played a role in the evolution of Christianity, Sulai notes. “St. Peter’s is located on New Inn Hall Street, right beside the Wesley Memorial Church. Not far from it is another building where John and Charles Wesley [two of the founders of Methodism] preached during their ministry.
“There were countless other monuments to men and women of faith that had played significant roles in shaping the history of modern England and the world. I felt privileged to walk the same halls as many of those people. I felt much greater joy, however, to be able to meet people, in 2003, who were willing and able to support me in my Christian faith.”
Oxford is often visited by currently famous names—from science, literature, and even sports. When St. Peter’s College held its annual physics dinner, for example, the speaker was Steven Chu, the 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics. Last February, Sulai met Roger Bannister, now Sir Roger, who became a prominent British doctor and medical textbook author after his track career ended.
“ After introducing myself, Mr. Bannister asked, ‘So where in the U.S. are you from?’ I guess I have picked up quite an American accent. I laughed and told him that I was from Nigeria … and from Meadville.”
Greg Schivley ’04
The streets were so narrow that he couldn’t fathom how his bus driver could negotiate them, and they were lined by the ornate buildings of Oxford’s oldest colleges, still intact after centuries of student wear. “It was,” he says, “like another world. Academically, it was like jumping straight into the fire. They cover a semester’s worth of material in eight weeks. They don’t ask if you have any questions. It’s just boom, boom, boom.
“The first couple of weeks, I felt like I was drowning under a sea of work—like I would never be able to catch up … would never understand it because we were always moving on to something new. That’s when I finally realized I had to sit down and take a couple of days to teach myself the things that everybody else knew that I didn’t.”
Among other things, Schivley quickly discovered he needed a crash course in vector calculus to be able to understand his physics lectures. “I just got a book on it. Instead of saying ‘My education is going to be given to me,’ I said, ‘I need to know this. I better just go learn it.’
“ I don’t know if I got quicker at learning, but I got a lot better at taking responsibility for my education. That’s where the fact that they don’t give grades became a tremendous advantage. Since I didn’t have to worry about grades, I could focus on what I needed to do to get oriented.”
Schivley also had to adjust to the tutorial system. The tutors, while willing to go to great lengths to unravel the complexities of physics, expected students to do most of the work themselves. “It was very much an independent learning style. I would meet once a week for a tutorial. The physics tutor would give you the relevant sections of three or four books and ‘say learn it.’”
The second term at Oxford, Schivley says, was easier than the first, although it involved quantum mechanics—the study of the strange interactions of particles at the sub-atomic level. Quantum theory is one of the toughest subjects in science. But Schivley had previously studied quantum theory at Allegheny, and he found the college had prepared him “very well.”
Schivley’s path to Oxford’s elite physics program was propelled by a desire to know how things work. Physics probably explains more phenomena than any other science, starting with the workings of atoms, the building blocks for everything else. Physics also explains the workings of a garden hose, an automobile, or a lunar rocket. “Why is the sky blue, but then turns red when the sun is setting? Physics explains these things,” Schivley says.
This sort of curiosity has helped Schivley to stand out at Allegheny. “He’s an incredibly bright student, very sharp, very thoughtful,” says his advisor Doros Petasis, assistant professor of physics. “He’s not flashy. He takes his time, and digs and digs into a topic.”
Schivley recently worked with Petasis to discover why precious gems at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh had begun to change colors. The project is being done jointly with Carnegie Mellon University.
“The museum wanted to find how the colors were produced and how they could be prevented from forming,” Petasis says. “The project didn’t go very far until Greg joined it. He found radiation from visible and ultraviolet light was striking the stones, knocking electrons free (from atoms within the gems’ crystalline structures). Those electrons reacted with other atoms, producing changes in the color of the gems.”
Oxford offered Schivley a chance to advance his knowledge of physics, as well as a lot of other topics. “At Oxford, you have a large university with lots of people who are extremely intelligent. I had great conversations with people from Russia, Bulgaria, Italy, and Spain about subjects such as the European economy. I got a decidedly different view of the world than we see in America. We are so far removed geographically and politically from the rest of the world. In Europe, they are closer to the world’s trouble spots.”
He also found time to indulge his outside interests in rock climbing—with side trips to the slopes of North Wales—and dancing. Oxford abounded with dance of all kinds, including numerous black-tie balls. “Seeing people dressed up in black-tie was a normal event,” he recalls.
One thing Oxford didn’t offer was a liberal arts education. Students focus on a single field while they are there. For example, a physics student would probably never take a literature course, and vice versa. After three years—the length of an Oxford undergraduate education—students are subjected to two weeks of examinations on the massive amount of material they have covered in their major. Since there are no grades in the first three years, everything hinges on these tests.
The system is intense, and has been quite successful in turning out famous graduates, but it’s not for everyone. “While I’m glad I was there for one year, I’m glad I wasn’t there for three,” Schivley says. “I love being at a liberal arts college and being able to take whatever course I want.”
St. Peter’s College
St. Peter’s College was founded in 1920 by Francis Chavasse, a Liverpool bishop who was concerned that bright students of limited means were being frozen out of top-quality education. St. Peter’s helped to ease the problem by offering an Oxford education regardless of a student’s ability to pay.
St. Peter’s occupies a group of buildings far older than the college itself. The library is a former rectory built in 1797. The dining hall dates from 1832, and the chapel is the former Church of St. Peter-le-Bailey (1874). The former Oxford Girl’s school was recently acquired and turned into college dormitories.
College alumni include Carl Albert, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar; Edward Akufo Addo, the former president of Ghana; and a large number of prominent figures in the arts, including Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the screenplay for The Full Monty.
St. Peter’s enrollment (420 undergraduates and 200 graduate students) is about a third the size of Allegheny’s. At any given time, St. Peter’s has only about thirty American students, which is an advantage, says Danuta Majchrowicz, who oversees international programs at Allegheny. “It’s far less likely that our students will end up hanging out in an American ghetto,” she says.
The agreement between Allegheny and St. Peter’s guarantees two qualified students a spot each year. But that is a minimum. “After the performance of Ibrahim and Greg, St. Peter’s would probably take more than two of Allegheny’s best students,” Majchrowicz says.
Small Liberal Arts Colleges Have Right Formula for Producing Top Scientists
Common sense would suggest that the best way to produce scientists would be to ship undergraduate students to a big technical school with lots of equipment and then stuff them full of mathematics, chemistry, physics, etc. The liberal arts would be jettisoned in favor of a science-only curriculum.
But there is another school of thought that rejects this notion. Its leaders include Tom Cech, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and graduate of Grinnell, a liberal arts college with an enrollment of 1,400.
Cech gathered up data showing that the top liberal arts colleges often turn out science Ph.D.’s in far greater numbers per one hundred graduates than the big schools. Swarthmore, on average, turns out 18 science Ph.D.’s per hundred graduates. That tops Harvard (11), Johns Hopkins (10), Cornell (9), Stanford (8), Berkeley (7), Pennsylvania (6), Michigan (5), Wisconsin (4), and Penn State (3).
Proponents of small liberal arts colleges say schools such as Allegheny serve up a cohesive formula for training scientists that includes small classes, close contact with faculty, and a heavy emphasis on student research at the undergraduate level.
It’s true that Penn State or Harvard will have more, bigger, and better equipment. But that may be beside the point. “We tell students who come to our college that if you go to a big university, they’ll have great equipment, but you may not get to use it,” says Jim Lombardi, professor of physics at Allegheny.
The liberal arts offer one more advantage, Cech said. The exposure to courses outside of science may create scientists with more facile minds, and this may give them an edge over the strictly technical types when confronting the toughest research problems.
“ Learning about the great books and the humanities can stimulate the sort of brain waves that serve a scientist pretty darn well,” Cech remarked in a recently published interview. “The more types of thinking you do, the more skills you can bring to a scientific problem.”
But you needn’t take Cech’s word for it. Great scientists have often had interests outside of science. Einstein read and wrote widely on religion, played the violin, and loved to sail. Isaac Newton’s library held more volumes devoted to philosophy and religion than to science.
“ You grow the most when you’re hit from something in a different direction,” said Cech, now head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “You could study chemistry, chemistry, and chemistry. But there’s a point of diminishing returns.”
Nanna Sulai ’05
At any given time, hundreds of thousands of foreign students are studying at American colleges and universities, and after graduation many will stay in the United States. It offers prosperity and a safe distance from the strife found in much of the globe.
Nanna Sulai, a premed student, won’t be among them. She plans to make a beeline for her home country of Nigeria, where she wants to treat children, possibly as a specialist in pediatric neurology. “I definitely want to work with children,” she says, “and I definitely want to work back home. We have lots of trained doctors in the United States. Back home, there is a shortage of doctors for all kinds of specialties.”
There is also a shortage of women in medical professions. The problem stems from a historic imbalance in Nigeria’s school system, which once educated far more men than women. “That’s largely been corrected,” Sulai says. “The schools are approaching fifty-fifty.”
Coeducation is among the many changes that are transforming Nigeria, the most populous nation in West Africa. The country shed a military dictatorship four years ago in favor of democracy, and though Nigeria still retains Third World status, it is quickly modernizing thanks to an oil boom.
But one of the biggest reasons for returning is that Sulai misses her homeland, her parents, the native food, and Nigeria’s culture.
“No matter how bad it is, that’s where I’m from,” Sulai says. “There is this big sense of community, even though there are divisions over such issues as religion [the country is evenly split between Christians and Muslims]. We’re all Nigerians.”
That’s especially true when Nigeria’s national soccer team—made up of Christians and Muslims—is playing in international competition. “Soccer brings everybody together. People forget about religious differences. Soccer unifies the country.”
Dealing with homesickness was one of several adjustments Sulai made after she arrived in Meadville. Coping with the weather was particularly difficult. Pennsylvania is frigid by Nigerian standards, and in mid-February Sulai finds her mind drifting back to Nigeria. When she goes to medical school in the United States, she hopes it’s in the South.
Fortunately, she doesn’t have to travel more than a few hundred yards to see someone from home. Her brother, Ibrahim, is an Allegheny senior. “Because my brother is here, it’s not as bad as it could be,” she says.
When she returns home as a doctor, she would like to stress preventive medicine. Nigeria’s medical system is often short of cash, so there’s little money to pay for expensive care once people are already sick.
The problems are especially acute among children, who have less disease-resistance than adults. “Problems among children often go untreated until they have reached the fatal stage,” she says. Malaria, diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, and AIDS have proved particularly deadly to Nigerian children.
“ The country does not have a lot of money, so it’s important to prevent disease rather than to try and find the money for treatment after the fact,” she says. “In Africa, a lot could be done simply by preventing disease in the first place.”
This article was featured in the Fall/Winter Issue of Allegheny Magazine.