News & Updates

Meet Doctor Sparks, an Allegheny Graduate Who Uses Stories to Teach Science to Kids

Karl Smith has a doctorate in biophysics from the University of Rochester. He also worked at Amazon as a software engineer trying to make the Alexa voice assistant smarter. But now Smith is putting his talents to better use, he says, as a children’s science storyteller. He describes his new calling as “Mister Rogers meets Bill Nye.”

Smith calls his alter ego Doctor Sparks. “Hoo boy,” he says, “there’s a story behind that. It’s not a short story though. Let me just say that I earned the name Sparks, and I earned it on a lonesome walk through the New Mexican high desert that lasted for three sleepless days.”

Allegheny graduate Karl Smith earned a doctorate in biophysics and now teaches science to children.
Allegheny graduate Karl Smith earned a doctorate in biophysics and now teaches science to children.

Smith, a 2011 Allegheny graduate, lives in the Pittsburgh area and does most of his 50-minute shows at elementary and middle schools. But he also has appeared at events such as the World Scout Jamboree 2019 and at institutions like the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh and the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

Smith also delivered a TEDx talk when he was making national news as a graduate student in Rochester writing short stories about people’s lives for 10 cents each on a vintage typewriter.

After finishing his doctorate, he spent some time developing a murder mystery smartphone app and putting together a proposed television pilot, in which he started his Doctor Sparks persona. “The basic idea was to use my typewriter-stories project as a way to teach science concepts,” Smith says.

That’s when he got the Amazon job offer. “I moved to the West Coast, became a professional software developer, took up surfing, and in my free time began to put together the live science storytelling show I now tour with,” says Smith.

A little more than a year later, he moved back to Pittsburgh with his fiancee to become a professional storyteller.

“While I was at Allegheny, I spent my summers working as a historical interpreter at a Boy Scout ranch in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of New Mexico,” Smith says. “Every night in front of a campfire, I would tell stories about what it was like to be a logger in the year 1914, and it’s there that storytelling took hold of me.”

“The best part about storytelling is when everything sings,” says Karl Smith.
“The best part about storytelling is when everything sings,” says Karl Smith.

So now Smith travels extensively, spreading scientific knowledge to youngsters as Doctor Sparks. Most of the presentations are in the Pittsburgh area; he toured Rochester and upstate New York schools in November, and in February 2020 he will tour Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Charlotte, North Carolina. He brings a number of props, including “smart” hula hoops, pogo sticks, juggling balls, teddy bears and inflating robotic muffin hats.

The science concepts he teaches include thermodynamics — particularly what heat actually is and how a hot air balloon works, motion and energy, illumination, and fractions, among other things. “Generally I pick a particular next generation science standard or common core curriculum idea, and find a way to spin a story around the concept,” he says. You can find out more about the show here.

Allegheny Professor of English Benjamin Slote recalls Smith sitting in class a decade ago “with a little smile on his face—teachers can tell pretty quickly who is lit from within by their interests and delights in the material. Karl was so lit. His love of stories and storytelling quickly surfaced, as did the related power of imagining the lives of others.”

Slote was Smith’s advisor when Smith worked summers in the New Mexico camp as a storyteller. “He sent me long and wonderfully written reflections about the experience,” Slote recalls. “That’s when his love and performative energies for storytelling were confirmed for me. And that lit-from-within interest in the world and all the world’s quirks has never left him, and I suspect never will. Kids know it when they see it. Which is why storytelling and good teaching are very close cousins.”

It’s not surprising that Smith has focused his storytelling on science, says Allegheny Professor of Physics Doros Petasis.

“Karl’s physics/English double major gave him a breadth of knowledge and experience that he now uses to communicate science to children and inspire them to become future scientists. As a double major, he only did a one-semester senior project in my lab but accomplished more than most students do in a whole year,” Petasis says. “As part of his project, he designed, constructed and tested water-cooled Helmholtz modulation coils for a unique electron spin resonance spectrometer based in a research collaborator’s lab at Carnegie Mellon University. These Helmholtz coils allow us to increase the strength of weak signals we get from metalloprotein samples and are still in use today, many years after Karl constructed them.”

So Smith is on a mission to become the next nationally famous “science guy.”

“The best part about storytelling is when everything sings,” says Smith. “The crowd is with you, you’ve won them over. They can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next. If you do your job right, you can give them a sense that stories are capable of doing more and being more than they would ever have imagined. Anyone can make a crowd laugh, or make them feel fear or anger. But with the right story told the right way, you can make them feel wonder, and that is a special thing.”

Smith says he has had his embarrassing moments on stage, such as dropping and breaking his WiFi-enabled and sensor-studded juggling balls on occasion.

His best moment so far involved a new story he had never told before an audience and it included the audience chanting “Dinosaur, Dinosaur” over and over, says Smith. “I started the story, and the crowd was so into it that they almost threw me off. They chanted so loud they filled the whole gymnasium with sound and it was perfect. Then at the end when the dinosaur eats all the children in the story the audience all shrieked and screamed, and I knew at that moment that I had made the right decision to leave a lucrative and successful career at Amazon to go and tell stories to children.”

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Sight-reading a Cosmic Symphony in Gravitational Waves by Dr. Alex Urban

The era of multi-messenger astronomy is upon us. In the last few years, the LIGO observatories in Hanford, WA, and Livingston, LA have made it possible to witness cacophonous mergers of black holes and neutron stars, then call out to other telescopes around the world and in deep space, all in nearly real-time. But how can we tell so quickly what is happening out in the cosmos, just by staring at some convoluted data? The answer, surprisingly, can be understood through audio engineering — and the power of music. In this seminar we will explore connections between merging black holes and the physics of artful sound, examining what the pitch, timbre, intensity, and tempo of musical instruments can teach us about how to interpret this brand-new field of gravitational wave astronomy.

Join us for this presentation by Dr. Alex Urban on Wednesday, 6 November 2019 @ 12:30 pm in Carr 122

Pizza and drinks @12:15 pm  courtesy of the William Beazell Memorial Fund

Allegheny College to Host One-Day Women in Physics Conference

With the goal of boosting women’s prominence in the field of physics, Allegheny College will host a free Women in Physics conference on Saturday, November 9, in Carr Hall. The event starts with registration at 8:30 a.m. and concludes at 7 p.m. The day will include poster presentations, a career panel discussion, and a seminar on negotiating professional positions and sharpening communication skills.

“Seventy-three percent of all physicists are men,” says Adele Poynor, assistant professor of physics at Allegheny. “This is a chance to get women together, build a community, and inspire and support one another.”

Allegheny students share their physics summer research symposium projects in 2018. (Photo by Ed Mailliard)

The conference organizers — who include Poynor and senior Allegheny students Grace Rohaley, Olivia Krieger, Anna Campbell Sowden, Juliana Sebolt and Sarah Seitanakis — hope to attract dozens of women from the Ohio-New York-Pennsylvania region, ranging from high school students, current undergraduate physics majors, and women who already work in the industry.

“Those in attendance will also have the opportunity to network with other fellow physicists as well as many leaders in academia and industry in an environment where all can share their experiences, advice and ideas,” Poynor says. “There are lots of jobs in physics; not everyone becomes a college professor.”

The keynote address will be delivered by Carolyn Kuranz, associate research professor at the Center for Laser Experimental Astrophysical Research in Michigan. Also speaking will be Kristi Caldwell, a physics teacher in the Palmyra-Macedon School District in New York; Caitlyn Neidig, a 2012 Allegheny graduate who is an engineer at PPG Industries; Barbara Dunlap, a 2009 Allegheny graduate who is a senior research associate at the Ohio State University Department of Chemistry/Biochemistry, and Brianne Hitchner, a 2014 Allegheny graduate and a signal processing engineer at Lockheed Martin.

The two-hour seminar on mastering negotiation and communication skills starts at 1 p.m. Participants will learn how to negotiate a graduate, postdoctoral or professional position in academia, industry or a national laboratory; interact positively on teams or with a mentor; think tactically; enhance personal presence; develop alliances, and achieve professional goals. It is possible to register for, and attend, just this seminar, Poynor says.

This will mark the second Women in Physics conference at Allegheny. “We did it in 2017, and the students created the entire program. We had about 30 attendees from seven schools and some high school students. The goal is for the conference to travel around the region. We’re hoping more schools will take it up,” Poynor says.

The conference is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the American Physical Society, and the Barbara Lotze Endowed Lectureship Fund. Those interested can register online for the conference here. Registrations are due Thursday, Oct. 31.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Physics Program at Allegheny College Is the 2019 Best for the Money in Pennsylvania

Meadville, Pennsylvania – The accredited degree program in Physics at Allegheny College has been ranked as a “Best Value for the Money” in the annual nationwide ranking of U.S. colleges and universities by College Factual.

National Rankings Review

The Physics program at Allegheny is ranked #24 out of 261 programs at colleges and universities in the United States reviewed as “Best for the Money.” This places Allegheny’s Physics program in the Top 10% of all such programs in the country reviewed by College Factual for value.

See the full ranking of Best Physics Schools for the Money.

State Rankings Review

In addition, Allegheny’s Physics program ranked #1 out of 18 colleges in Pennsylvania for value. This makes Allegheny the best value school in the state for Physics majors.

Allegheny has achieved this ranking 2 years in a row.

See the full ranking of Best for the Money Physics programs in Pennsylvania.

Superior Outcomes at Allegheny for Students Earning Physics Degrees

Based upon PayScale survey data*, students graduating from Allegheny with accredited degrees in Physics realize early-career earnings of $56,016 and mid-career earnings of $89,985.

Learn more about Physics as a major.

About This Ranking

College Factual’s Best Physics Schools for the Money Ranking takes into account the average yearly cost of the school, the average time students take to graduate, and the quality the school provides to students. This means schools who rank highly are offering a good value for the money for Physics graduates.

About Allegheny College

Allegheny College is located in Meadville, Pennsylvania in what is generally considered a small town setting, serving approximately 1,900 graduates.

College Factual has estimated the average yearly cost to attend Allegheny to be $34,241. The average student graduates in about 4.1 years, bringing the average total cost of attending Allegheny to $140,388.

Learn more about value at Allegheny.

About College Factual

College Factual, located in Troy, New York, is the leading source of data analytics and insights on college outcomes. It provides in-depth coverage for over 2,500 colleges and universities and over 350 college majors. These insights are available to students from over 200 countries interested in pursuing accredited college degree programs in the United States.

Learn more about the methodologies employed by College Factual.

*Salary data is estimated by College Factual using 2013 data provided by PayScale.

Interactive planetarium to feature a full-dome projection system

Allegheny received a grant of $150,000 from the George I. Alden Trust to create a Center for Innovation and to purchase a high-definition, full-dome projector for the planetarium, which will allow some of the projects developed in the center to be tested and displayed in the planetarium. Recognizing the importance our students and their families understandably place on post-graduation outcomes, the college has committed to offering more opportunities for students to put their classroom learning into action. The Center for Innovation and interactive planetarium will offer our students the ability to engage critically and creatively with real-world situations and problems, working across the curriculum and co-curriculum in intentional ways.

Sebolt, Rohaley, Krieger attend physics conference for women

The few the proud: Juliana Sebolt, ’20, Grace Rohaley, ’20, and Olivia Krieger, ’19.

Held at 12 different locations around the United States and Canada each year, the American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics aims to spread awareness about the lack of women working the physics field, as well as connecting women who are studying the profession.

Sebolt, Rohaley and Krieger had the opportunity to attend the New Jersey conference this year on Jan. 21. The head of the department at Allegheny is Dr. James Lombardi. […] Read more at The Campus


Karczewski Presents at Undergraduate Research Symposium

Kylee Karczewski (Physics, 2018) spent ten weeks last summer doing research in the Molecular Biophysics and Structural Biology program that is jointly administered by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. She presented the results of her research at the Summer Undergraduate Research Program symposium on July 28 held on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The title of her presentation was: “Biophysical Characterization of Mutants of HIV-1 RT Precursor”.Karczewski is incorporating elements of her summer research into her senior project.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Eclipse Draws Gators’ Gaze Skyward

The sky grew darker, the temperature cooled, and Allegheny College students looked skyward.

“It’s amazing to see,” said Taylor Cook, 18, a first-year student from Mt. Orab, Ohio, who is planning to major in art and technology.

Meadville, Pennsylvania — like the rest of the state — wasn’t in the path of totality for Monday’s total solar eclipse, the first total solar eclipse in the contiguous United States since 1979.

But that didn’t matter to the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who gathered on the lawn outside Allegheny’s Newton Observatory. Looking through special eclipse glasses, pinhole cameras and telescopes, they were treated to a partial eclipse that blocked out about 77 percent of the sun.

The group included Allegheny President James H. Mullen, Jr., Provost and Dean of the College Ron Cole and more than 40 students involved in the Access Allegheny Scholars Program, a program designed to improve the first-year college experience of traditionally underrepresented or underserved students, including, but not limited to, first-generation college students and students who come to Allegheny from a great distance.

“It’s a great initial experience for them, being a part of a national experience while here at Allegheny,” said Rachel O’Brien, associate professor of geology and dance studies.

Allegheny students Nicholas Navarro, left, and Sita Kadash view the Aug. 21, 2017 solar eclipse through a Sunspotter II.

Outside on the lawn, students passed around glasses and gathered around a Sunspotter, a special telescope that projects an image of the eclipse onto white paper for safe viewing. Inside the observatory, Associate Professor of Physics Jamie Lombardi gave visitors a quick tutorial on the workings of its 9.5-inch refracting telescope. The telescope is more than 100 years old and is outfitted with a mirror on the end that blocks almost all of the sun’s light.

“That’s crucially important,” Lombardi said. “If it didn’t have that, you could literally blind yourself.”

The eclipse is the kind of special event that can help ignite a person’s interest in science, Lombardi said.

“People have been interested in this kind of thing for hundreds, thousands of years,” he said. “Everyone, regardless of age, has a connection to the universe and a curiosity about the universe.”

Sean O’Gary, a 19-year-old first-year student who plans to major in physics, is from Chattanooga, Tennessee, inside the path of totality. He was disappointed not to see the full blackout, but still impressed by the partial eclipse and the chance to view it through the Newton Observatory telescope.

The eclipse puts our presence in the universe in perspective, O’Gary said.

“We’re just tiny people and we’re privileged to be able to think about what’s going on and understand it,” he said.

Miss the eclipse? Not to worry. Northwestern Pennsylvania will be in the path of totality for the next total solar eclipse in the United States, in April 2024.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Rigorous Academics Inspire a Career in Physics

When he enrolled at Allegheny, Colby Mangini ’04 thought he’d probably major in international studies. He had studied Spanish in high school, and international business and economics sounded interesting. He wanted a college degree but wasn’t exactly passionate about academics.

“I wasn’t challenged that much in high school and could get by doing the bare minimum, so I did,” he says.

During his first semester, Mangini decided to get his science requirement out of the way and signed up for Physics 101 with Dr. James Lombardi, Sr. As it turns out, that single introductory course would change the trajectory of Mangini’s studies, and shape his future career.

Now, a little over a decade since he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in physics, Mangini holds a doctorate in radiation health physics and is board certified in the field, both accomplishments that have helped fast-track his career and allowed him to play a major role in the treatment of children who are battling cancer.

In his current position as radiation safety officer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Mangini makes sure that patients and their families, along with staff, and members of the local community are safe from the potentially damaging effects of radiation used in medical and research applications within the hospital. He also ensures radiation-emitting material does not escape into the environment and that St. Jude’s programs comply with state and federal regulations.

There are a lot of uses for radioactive materials in a hospital setting. X-rays and CT scans probably come to mind but there are also radioactive materials that are injected into patients so that doctors can capture an image of say, the thyroid gland, and radioactive materials and equipment used to treat cancers. Additionally, at a research hospital, various radioactive substances are being generated and used in laboratories.

It is Mangini’s job to be certain X-ray machines are properly shielded by lead walls. He makes sure patients with a radioactive substance in their bodies do not contaminate other patients or their family members, and that the rooms where they stayed are properly decontaminated. He must see that nothing escapes the lab setting in which it is meant to be contained.

Most hospitals have radiation safety officers, but Mangini’s role at St. Jude presents a unique challenge. St. Jude houses a revolutionary new device, the 230 MeV proton synchrotron, that uses a thin beam of protons to treat tumors. It is one of a few of its kind in the world, and the only unit dedicated solely to pediatric care.

“St. Jude’s proton accelerator uses pencil-beam technology,” explains Mangini. “If you could see the proton beam it would look like a laser pointer.” The device allows doctors to direct a stream of radiation at a tumor with great accuracy, meaning less damage to neighboring tissue and skin. It means tumors near sensitive areas of the body, such as the brainstem can be safely treated with radiation. Less damage to healthy tissues means less recovery time for patients. It also improves outcomes down the road, with fewer patients experiencing recurring or secondary cancers related to radiation treatment.

“When protons hit the patient, it creates a secondary radiation field comprised of neutrons and gamma rays,” Mangini says. “The protons stop at the patient—they destroy the cancer—but the other particles don’t.”

That is where Mangini and his team come in. They make sure the rooms housing the proton beam technology have the proper amount of shielding in the walls and that the secondary radiation is not escaping into the hallway or waiting area where a patient’s family is sitting. They make sure the people working on the floor above the Proton Therapy Center aren’t exposed, and that appropriate staff wear personal dosimeters, which monitor their exposure to radiation.

Mangini also helps to educate St. Jude employees whose work takes them into the proton facility. “People fear radiation,” he says, “because they don’t know a lot about it. I spend a lot of my time communicating to staff members about what is happening inside the proton facility, what they could be exposed to, and what we have in place—the shielding, and safety systems.”

It is a big job with an endless list of responsibilities, which, for Mangini, is both the challenge and the reward. “What they are doing here at St. Jude is cutting edge. If something I do falls by the wayside or I don’t do something correctly or something happens to the safety systems or there’s a regulatory issue, all that work could come to a stop. It increases the importance of everything we do.”

A Student Motivated by Challenges

In order to jump from Physics 101, a course intended for non-majors, into the curriculum for physics majors, Mangini had to get a waiver. He first sought the advice of physics professor Doros Petasis. Mangini left that conversation feeling that the transition into the major would be doable but difficult. “I saw this as a challenge and always remembered that feeling,” says Mangini, who received the waiver. “I was determined to be the top student in every physics class thereafter.”

“Allegheny was a huge step up from high school,” Mangini says. “When it started to become clear—what I could achieve in college, I had more motivation. I was challenged and applied myself a lot more.”

Mangini says he discovered, while in college, that he is motivated by setting personal goals for himself, which meant, at Allegheny, GPA goals. After college, his goal was to become an officer in the Navy. Mangini realized that this pursuit could also fulfill another of his goals: to explore the love of teaching he developed while he was a physics tutor at Allegheny. Eventually, he became a senior instructor and lieutenant in the Navy.

Teaching in the Navy had its own set of motivating challenges. At first, Mangini wasn’t teaching physics, but nuclear and mechanical engineering, which meant, he had to teach himself the material before he could teach it to his classes. “I had to learn everything involved with how a reactor core takes nuclear fuel and causes a propeller to rotate at the back of a boat,” he says. Mangini again rose to the challenge and excelled. He was awarded “Master Training Specialist” designation by the Navy.

After completing his four-year term in the Navy, while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in health physics from Oregon State University via distance education (he was stationed in South Carolina), Mangini decided to take Petasis’ advice. He and his wife, Kyla Vandree ’04 Mangini moved to Corvallis, Oregon, and he enrolled in Oregon State’s doctorate program.

While there, Colby reworked the code for VARSKIN, a computer program that helps to estimate the amount of biological damage received by skin when it comes into contact with radioactive material. VARSKIN’s ability to produce an accurate estimation was poor under certain conditions. Mangini spent many nights awake in bed thinking over the problem. He had to figure out where the weakness was in the code, then how to write a better code.

“I developed a new physics model that could be used to more accurately estimate the biological damage from high energy electrons,” he says. “I incorporated that model into the computer code itself, so the latest version of that code uses my model. I still consult and trouble-shoot that code.”

Throughout Mangini’s academic career, Professor Petasis has continued to inspire him to excel. The professor’s initial hesitation about Mangini’s promise as a physics student quickly changed to enthusiasm. He “took me under his wing,” says Mangini. Petasis encouraged him to do undergraduate research and to pursue an academic career in physics. “Him having that belief in me, that I was capable of a Ph.D., was always in the back of my mind as my career progressed.”

Rachel Mangini wrote this story. She is a freelance writer in Warren, Pa.

Photo courtesy of Colby Mangini

Source: Academics, Publications & Research