Sharing a love of science

On October 26-27, Michael Kosterlitz, the co-winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics, was the 18th Nobel Laureate to visit UW-La Crosse. Here he speaks with a UWL Physics class. The annual lecture series has helped UWL’s Physics Department gain its reputation as a recognized leader in physics education.

UWL physicist, anonymous donor launch Nobel Prize Winner lecture series nearly 20 years ago

Every fall young and old come to UW-La Crosse with their curiosity in tow. They come to learn about discoveries that have shaped how people understand the physical world — from the history of the universe to bizarre particle behavior.

For the last 18 years, crowds have been able to hear firsthand from the people who made these discoveries — Nobel Prize winners in physics.

Consistently attracting such an esteemed group is not typical. At a recent American Physical Society national conference, UWL Professor of Physics Gubbi Sudhakaran was asked to speak about building a thriving physics program. Afterward, people lined up — some asking how the department at a small, non-doctoral school can invite a Nobel Prize Winner every year when they can pay much less than what other universities do.

The answer? It comes back to physics — particularly the part about work and energy.

A series begins

Sudhakaran recalls the day Al Trapp, a former president of the UWL Foundation, told him about an anonymous donor interested in supporting a Distinguished Lecture Series in Physics. But the annual event would need one important thing — a Nobel Prize Winning speaker. Sudhakaran smiled at the news and agreed.

Trapp came back after talking to the donor, someone with a lifelong interest in physics, who had agreed to support the series. Trapp then asked Sudhakaran, “So, how many Nobel Laureates do you know?”

“None,” he replied. “But I will bring them.”

Energy in motion

And he did. For the first lecture, William Phillips, the 1997 Nobel Prize Winner, spoke to a packed lecture hall in UWL’s science building. Every Nobel Prize Winning lecture since has been equally popular — with crowds flowing into the hallway.

Sudhakaran is typically connecting with three Nobel Laureates at a time to arrange the next visit. When they arrive, the entire department plays a role in their stay. Even Sudhakaran’s wife, Pushpa, plays a role, inviting the Laureate and others into their home for a traditional Indian dinner after the lectures.

The speaker stays two days, giving a seminar, talking to classes, and meeting one-on-one with students, faculty and administrators. The public lecture attracts a diverse group of community members and university students, faculty and staff, as well as those from other UW schools and Winona State University. “No other UW institution does this,” says Sudhakaran.

It has brought UWL exposure and helps attract students, says Physics Professor Eric Gansen. “When parents and prospective students ask what our program has to offer, this is one of the first things we bring up,” he says.

When Taviare Hawkins, UWL associate professor of physics, considered teaching at UWL five years ago, she was impressed by the Nobel visits, as well as the department’s national reputation. UWL’s Physics Department graduates more physics majors than any other bachelor’s degree granting institution nationally. “People here are active in research, but they are also really good teachers,” she notes.

During the visits, students are typically surprised to learn that the laureates are not so super human. “They often share that they’ve failed and succeeded. It’s nice for students to hear that — especially if they’ve struggled with classes,” says Stephen Harris, an electrical technician in the department.

Community donors, the Physics Department and UWL administration support have made the lecture series possible. “One person cannot do it alone,” says Sudhakaran.

Nobel Prize Winner Michael Kosterlitz gives a public lecture at UWL. UWL had a Distinguished Lecture Series in Computer Science before the Physics lecture series was added in 2000. An anonymous donor had the idea for the Physics series, which has continued ever since providing the public and campus community a chance to connect with a Nobel Prize Winner every year.

But co-workers and donors note, without Sudhakaran, or “Sudha” as many call him, it wouldn’t be possible. They point to his personality, persistence and national reputation in physics.

Geri Wettstein, a former Kindergarten teacher who collaborates with Sudhakaran to connect K-12 science teachers with a UWL physics workshop every summer, calls Sudhakaran “an amazing gift to the community.” He has become a long-term resource and mentor for area science teachers and former physics students — even Wettstein’s own son, who originally accompanied her to UWL physics laser light shows and Nobel prize winning lectures as a child.

“If you would have asked our son when he was six years old if he would go to school for physics, he would have said, ‘no,’ says Wettstein. “Sudha opened the door for him.”

Sudhakaran encouraged her son, Jarrod Wettstein, to enroll in UWL’s dual degree program in physics and engineering, and today he is a successful mechanical engineer. “To this day he can meet with Sudha and call about issues he is having at work,” says Geri. “And I know my son is not alone.”

Sudhakaran has built bridges regionally for students and teachers. That’s why Geri and her husband, Dan, owners of Wettstein’s, agreed to support the lecture series nearly a decade ago.

“He has a life-long commitment to his craft,” she says. “He wants that love of science to be passed on.”