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Science & Technology - Campus & Community

Celebrating 20 Years of Bringing Nobel Prize Winners to Campus

February 15, 2016

20th Kaczmarczik Lecture speaker S. Alan Stern gestures during his presentation on Feb. 10.
20th Kaczmarczik Lecture speaker S. Alan Stern gestures during his presentation on Feb. 10

More than 700 local high school students and Drexel students, faculty and staff filled two auditoriums on campus last week to watch S. Alan Stern, PhD, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons Mission to Pluto, speak at the College of Arts and Sciences' 20th Kaczmarczik Lecture. The immense interest in the annual series reflects the accomplishments of the Physics Department’s cornerstone event.

Despite its’ humble beginning in a classroom in Disque Hall, the Kaczmarczik Lecture has always brought in prestigious physicists. The first speaker, Russell Hulse, came in 1996, three years after he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the binary pulsar. Kip Thorne, one of the physicists involved with the detection of gravitational waves announced last week, was the second speaker. Of the 20 speakers so far, seven have won Nobel Prizes, often visiting campus the very next year. Physicists have lectured on everything from dark matter to revolutions in fundamental physics to the search for extraterrestrial life.

“Every speaker we’ve had is a fantastic scientist. We maintain this high quality through today,” said Michel Vallières, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences. Vallières headed the department for 17 years and organized the first 18 lectures.

The series honors the late Paul Kaczmarczik, professor emeritus and an alumnus who played an instrumental role in shaping Drexel’s Physics program. Kaczmarczik graduated from Drexel with a BS in physics in 1948, and started teaching here part time in 1949 as a graduate electrical engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1952, he began teaching full time during the day and administering the Physics program at night. Kaczmarczik remained on campus for more than 30 years, becoming professor emeritus in 1989.

Dr. Kaczmarczik during a lecture.
Dr. Kaczmarczik during a lecture.

“Kacz,” as he was known to students and faculty alike, won many awards and recognition for his service; in 1992, Drexel honored him with the Stanley J. Gwiazda Professorship and later established the Kaczmarczik Chair of Physics Teaching. He advised Drexel chapters of the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi (which he joined as a student) and the Delta Kappa Rho fraternity, in addition to serving as financial advisor for the Lexerd Yearbook for over 30 years. His character was such that Drexel’s independent student newspaper The Triangle once described him as “the notorious wit of the physics department.”

Kaczmarczik had the reputation of being a very good lecturer,” said Vallières, who started at Drexel when Kaczmarczik was still teaching. “He had this unique personality with this big voice. There are many, many, many young people that I think have been influenced by his way of teaching and his way of thinking.”

Kaczmarczik’s son Paul worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences in the '60s and '70s, graduated from Drexel with a BS in unified science and has been teaching as an adjunct professor in the physics department since the beginning of the '00s. His son Mike attended Drexel as a physics graduate student before leaving to take a job at the Academy in 2008, where he works today as the outreach coordinator. Both Paul and Mike have attended every single Kaczmarczik Lecture; this year three of Kaczmarczik’s great-grandsons attended their very first talk.

“My granddad got people excited about science and physics, and he did it better than anyone I’ve ever met. I think the series perfectly embodies what he tried to do,” said Mike.

20th Kaczmarczik Lecture speaker S. Alan Stern, second from left, with three generations of the Kaczmarczik family.
20th Kaczmarczik Lecture speaker S. Alan Stern, second from left, with three generations of the Kaczmarczik family.

Since the series evolved to include an open house and a reception for visitors to meet and interact with Drexel’s Physics Department, Kaczmarczik has indirectly influenced thousands of Drexel and local high school students.

“This is the department’s big outreach for local high school students. It’s an incredible opportunity for them to see this prestigious speaker speak at their level,” said Michelle Dolinski, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics who chaired the organizing committee for the first time this year after serving on it during the previous year.

Vallières refers to the one-two punch of the open house and lecture as “Kaczmarczik Day,” and says that many high schools return year after year. Some of those students have even gone on to attend Drexel.

"We never held this series to improve admission or attract more students, and we never kept statistics. But when I informally ask students, 'Did you come to one of these when you were in high school?' I get a resounding 'yes.'"

Drexel students also benefit: all physics courses on “Kaczmarczik Day” are cancelled and members of Drexel’s Society of Physics Students hold demonstrations and guide high school students at the event. Plus, the top undergraduate and graduate physics students, as well as Pennoni Honors College students from STEM fields, informally meet with the lecturer the morning after the event during what Vallières calls the “Kaczmarczik Breakfast.”

(Left to right): Michel Vallières, 6th Kaczmarczik Lecture speaker J. Anthony Tyson and Paul Kaczmarczik in 2000.
(Left to right): Michel Vallières, 6th Kaczmarczik Lecture speaker J. Anthony Tyson and Paul Kaczmarczik in 2000.

It’s all part of the colossal effort that members of the Physics Department put forth to make this event the great success it is year after year. The administrative staff members play a crucial role with the logistics of the event, and members of the committee work for months to choose and secure the speakers. These well-known researchers are in great demand, making it very difficult to fit in a busy departmental timetable.

“In our wildest dreams, we never thought that we would reach the 20th Kaczmarczik Lecture one day," said Vallières. "But it happened this year.”