Research experience benefits students and advances knowledge

By Rob O'Connor '95
Managing Editor

You'd think that as a former Hendrix student, Dr. Todd Tinsley '98, now a physics professor at his alma mater, wouldn't be surprised by his students. Fortunately, he is.

"The first thing I was surprised by was how difficult it was to find appropriate theoretical physics projects for undergraduates," said Tinsley, whose labs focus on neutrino physics in supernovae. "Then I was surprised by how successful our students are with these projects ... It's a testament to the level of students we're drawing. We set the bar and our students will meet it."

Tinsley received his Ph.D. in 2005 from the University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the Hendrix faculty in 2007 as an Assistant Professor of Physics, he was the Weiss Instructor of Physics at Rice University in Houston, Texas, a teaching post-doctoral fellowship he held for two years.

Tinsley's current courses at Hendrix include calculus-based General Physics, Vibrations and Waves, and Modern Physics Lab.

"Hendrix students are doing work that third-year graduate students are learning," he said. "The projects may not be as broad, but they're learning math and physics outside the realm of the standard undergraduate curriculum."

As an example, Tinsley recalls his student Tyler Webb '14, a physics and mathematics major from Benton, Ark.

"Tyler and I were talking about calculating the likelihood for neutrino processes in magnetic fields," he said. "Tyler came to my lab as a freshman. He had taken high school physics and calculus. In 10 weeks, he performed a calculation for an anti-neutrino case, which is a big deal."

Webb will present his research in the spring at the national meeting of the American Physical Society in Atlanta, Ga.

"I don't know another place where students get those opportunities for research than at a liberal arts college like Hendrix," said Tinsley. "Students at other places don't get those opportunities until they're at the thesis or dissertation level."

"In 10 weeks, Tyler learned some particle physics and some quantum field theory and calculated the decay rate for anti-neutrinos in magnetic fields," he said. "I think that's awesome. I think that's amazing."

"It's important because it's a mode of learning that I have trouble fostering in the classroom," he said. "For 10 weeks, I supervised Tyler for 40 hours a week. That's 400 hours for him to fail, revise his calculation, and refine it. ... You can't do that in the classroom."

"Those opportunities that we provide students are what help complete their education," he added.

Places like Hendrix encourage faculty to provide those opportunities for student research, Tinsley said.

"The research pressures here are different," he explained. "It allows you more freedom to choose the problems you work on. We couldn't take those risks somewhere else."

"We're allowed the freedom of study that not only benefits faculty and students but also benefits science," he said.

Last spring, Tinsley was one of eight scholars selected to attend the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara for 2011-2013.

In addition to his teaching and research, Tinsley advises Hendrix students applying for the Goldwater Scholarship from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program, which is widely considered the most prestigious honor in the U.S. conferred upon undergraduates studying the sciences. Tinsley was named a Goldwater Scholar in 1997.

Tinsley and his wife, Blake Armstrong Tinsley '98, live in Conway with their two daughters.