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Saints Spotlight with Professor Jack Wells

David Klenk: Thank you very much for joining us today and welcome to another Saints Spotlight. Today our guest is Professor Jack Wells, he’s been at Thomas More University since 1980 and has taught in the mathematics and physics department. Professor Wells is retiring and we want to get his perspective on the time he spent here at Thomas More. Thank you very much for joining us, Professor Wells.

Professor Jack Wells: It’s good to be here.

DK: Can you please cover a little historical information on your journey into academia and how you came to teach here of Thomas More?

JW: I grew up in upstate New York. I’d been studying physics since 1970 and earned my bachelor’s degree in New York, went to graduate school in Toledo. That was a fun time, got a teaching assistantship in Toledo and enjoyed that part of teaching. As an undergraduate, I would have never thought about teaching as a career but that’s the way it turned out.

My first job was in Canfield, Ohio. It was a high school, and I was coaching football and wrestling. I was a wrestler in college, so I know all about the athletics program. I was also the faculty athletic rep, NCAA rep, here for probably 10 years. That was fun here too. But graduate school, becoming a TA (teacher assistant), I enjoyed teaching.

My second job was in Westminster, Pennsylvania, just across the border from Youngstown. I think our (Saints) athletic teams have played them in the past. We were in their league for a few years. My third job, came here and have been here ever since. It’s been a really nice place to work, it’s been a great department.

DK: We’re fortunate to have you and to have you on your last retirement hurrah. Can you explain a little bit about the physics and mathematics classes that you taught (at Thomas More) and the students that you’ve taught?

JW: Most every course in the curriculum I’ve taught. There’s probably a few that I have not, but I’m teaching the pre-meds, teaching the laboratory courses that’s part of my strength is the laboratory courses. I’ve probably taught to pre-med course (in 40 years) more than 20 times, so I am well familiar with that course.

I taught a course at UC (University of Cincinnati) for the MCAT test. I worked for UC for probably 10 years doing that course. Trying to help and be able to use that kind of information about the MCAT, because many of our biology students are also going to be taking, or have taken, the MCAT. So I taught that course for many years and that was a help for our premed students here at the college.

DK: Do you have a favorite class that you taught here?

JW: Biology class is certainly one of them. Other classes that I teach, one is a pre-engineering program: one course is called statics, it’s a junior level course. It’s the first course in building structures, like trusses for a bridge or a house, those kinds of things. The electronics course here, digital electronics, that’s been a fun course to teach. I was handed that course on day one and said learn it. That’s the way things happen, how you’re given an assignment then you learn that material and you teach it. So electronics has been fun.

DK: Can you explain what spectroscopy is and why you have a passion for it?

JW: So I’ve been doing spectroscopy for a long time. In a simple way, we could start with just visual light. That is, you could look at the sun: so how do we know what elements are on the sun? Answer: you just look at it through a spectroscope which is just like a grating or even you could do it with a prism, a glass prism. The glass prism breaks it into, well you’ve seen about a rainbow but now if you just look at the sun, then it just gives you a few bright lines in that spectrum. Those lines tell you what element you have. So it’s easy to tell the Sun is made of hydrogen – that primary line is called h alpha for hydrogen – alpha line, the first line, it’s a red line and so if you see that red line, you know it’s hydrogen. It’s easy to know the sun is hydrogen and helium, so every element has its own little fingerprint of the spectrum.

Now most of my work has been doing X ray spectroscopy. So if you shine X rays onto a material, you can determine what that material is. So I’ve had students do studies – well even an aspirin, what are the combinations in an aspirin? So I did powder spectroscopy with X rays, and you just take the piece of aspirin you powder it into a little sample, you shine the X rays on it, that gives you a spectrum. A spectrum simply means a bunch of lines, vertical lines – like the hydrogen line is red. Now X rays are not colored but they’re just a simply sharp line and each of those lines is like a fingerprint. You can determine the structure.

DK: Who or what do you draw from for mentorship, inspiration, or to collaborate in teaching?

JW: So I was a youngster, kind of, when I came here. She wasn’t the teacher right when I came, but she came soon thereafter: Sr. Mary Eleanor Fox. She was a longtime faculty member and mentor for lots of students. She kind of went back, I forget exactly where, when I was first here, but she’s certainly came back and became department chair again. Sister Mary Eleanor Fox, was a great mentor, showing me how to be a little compassionate for students, to help students along the way, she was a great mentor when I was a young teacher.

DK: What are the top three experiences at Thomas More that stand out in your mind?

JW: Certainly doing research projects. Physics is an experimental science and doing the experiments is a big part of my job. We have, at Thomas More in the physics department, research courses as a mandatory course and all of our graduating students do some kind of a research project. Working with those students one-on-one, doing a research project for many, many years has been one of the highlights of my time here at Thomas More.

Different than academics, but I’m proud of it, and that is I’ve walked the entire Appalachian Trail. That happened from 2000 to 2011. It took me 11 years to walk the whole thing because I just did it a few weeks in the summer. It probably takes six-seven months if you walked the whole thing straight away. On the Appalachian Trail they did trail names. I didn’t really get mine until near the end, but I called myself “three weeks.” I was on the trail usually most summers for more than 11 years on the trail for three weeks each summer, so that was my trail name “three weeks.” Out in the woods for three weeks. That was quite an experience.

I worked and set up an art gallery show in our art gallery next to the library for my father. My father was a pretty good artist. He was a carver/wood working – pitchers, little balsa wood cars, other kinds of hardwood carvings. I did a show for him just a month before he died, that was quite special to me to have a show from my father in the art gallery here at the college.

DK: Can you tell us what retirement means for you as an academic?

JW: I haven’t even begun to figure that out yet. My wife has been retired for three years, I’m sure she’ll tell me what to do. She’s a hosta collector, regarding the plant – it’s a broadleaf. She has, over the years, she’s probably had more than 300 different named hostas in her possession. I think she’s whittled that down a bit but that’s quite a bit of work. They require a lot of watering. They’re a pretty easy plant to grow, but they do require some attention, so we’ll be doing that.

We’ve done dachshund rescue dogs, we’re still doing that.

I decided last November, a year ago, that this would be my last year. It’s kind of time; the department needs some new blood. The lab manuals need to be revised, we’re getting new equipment in all the time and the manuals need to be upgraded to reflect the new equipment. Some of those jobs are very, very time intensive and I’m kind of losing my steam a little bit. Better to let some youngsters. When I was younger, I was an officer in many clubs. I was an officer in the KAPT, an officer in the Sierra Club (that’s a national environmental group). An officer in those clubs and those kinds of things take a lot of time but I’m running out of that kind of energy, so I think it’s time.

DK: Lastly, what advice do you have for Thomas More students?

JW: I would say to students, it’s important to ask good questions. I think students tend to sit and try to absorb. Okay, good. Work hard, good. But they don’t ask as many questions as they ought to, because it’s by asking those questions that then the connections are made and then you can see how the pieces of the puzzle fit. Physics is kind of like a puzzle and if you don’t have all the pieces in the right place, then you kind of are missing it and it’s a little bit hard. I would say ask questions so you can see how those pieces all fit together. I would say make every course fit. I think students take courses they have to, of course, but do they tried to use those courses in the next course. Sometimes they’re on to the next course without really seeing the connections between the courses and I think that would help a great deal. You have to see those connections. And lastly, I think to have a great college experience (and most of them do, I think) be part of a club. It is those kinds of connections that last a lifetime, that’s what students remember. Most students probably won’t remember an individual course but I think the connections that are made when they do projects, the connections that are made with faculty outside of the classroom, the connections that are made in the clubs. That’s what people, I think, maybe pull away from more than individual courses. I would say be part of the rest of the environment.

DK: That’s some great advice. Thank you very much for sharing and thank you very much for sitting down with us and being our Spotlight today. It’s been great talking with you and getting to know more about you and thank you all, for joining us for another issue is Saints Spotlight. Be sure to check in next time for our next edition.