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Faculty Faces - Dr. Ann Wright

CONWAY, Ark. (April 30, 2013) – Physics professor Dr. Ann Wright didn’t know she wanted to go into physics until she took quantum mechanics, her favorite class at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Wright grew up in Sandwich, Mass., on Cape Cod. Her mother was an office manager and accountant and her father was an electronic communications specialist with Bell Telephone.

“That kind of started things,” said Wright, who was initially interested in engineering or architecture. “But in college, it was the physics classes that excited me.”

As an undergraduate, she received a stipend to conduct experimental nuclear physics research. That experience inspired her to consider going to graduate school.

After completing MIT in 1991, she enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y.

At RPI, she considered focusing on physics education but returned to experimental nuclear and particle physics.

“What really excited me was building the detectors to measure different physical properties of particles … things that you can’t see,” said Wright, who designed, built, and installed particle detectors at Brookhaven national Laboratory and Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility as a graduate student.

Wright met her husband Andrew while studying at MIT. After MIT, they both pursued PhDs at RPI. He accepted a position on the applied science faculty teaching mechanical engineering at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is now in the department of Systems Engineering.

At the same time, she was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship and supervised the university’s hybrid rocket facility, where she met Hendrix chemistry professor Dr. Warfield Teague and physics professor Dr. Bob Dunn, who were conducting research during the summer with Hendrix students.

“That was my first Hendrix experience,” said Wright, who left her post-doc early to join the Hendrix faculty in 1998. It was the only place she applied. Initial funding for her position was underwritten by a grant from Research Corporation to the physics and chemistry programs at Hendrix.

Coming from MIT and RPI, Hendrix and the liberal arts were a new experience for Wright.

“It was completely foreign to me … with science majors taking literature and philosophy courses,” she said. “But I’ve grown to see a lot of value in that and definitely see my place in it.”

“The students here are getting excellent education because the teachers are focused on teaching as their first priority,” she said.

At Hendrix, Wright teaches general physics, quantum physics, and classical mechanics.

Her first general physics course had 40 students, a large class for Hendrix but a big change from the 750 students in her first physics class at MIT.

“I like that they’re not afraid to come talk to me,” she said. “We get to interact with students far more than you would at larger schools.”

She enjoys the opportunity to interact with a variety of students.

Wright also teaches astronomy, easily her most popular course and one of the college’s most oversubscribed courses with 100 students vying for 20 spots in each of the two sections offered each year.

The course attracts a wide range of students. On the first day, she conducts a clicker poll to find out what year the students are. It’s usually divided evenly between freshman and seniors.

“That opens their eyes,” said Wright.

She asks them how comfortable they are with science. Their options range from “scared” to “serious” to somewhere in between. Again, the results are pretty evenly distributed.

“To teach a science course to that audience and make it interesting and accessible is the best challenge,” she said. “And you wouldn’t get that at another school.”

When she first arrived at Hendrix, Wright continued researching hybrid rockets at UALR with funding from NASA but later shifted from rockets to robotics. Along with computer science professor Dr. Gabe Ferrer and her husband, she helped develop the college’s robotics course. Wright builds the robots and installs the robots’ sensors.

Wright accounts for a quarter of the physics department, which has changed a lot since her arrival. In the past several years, the popularity of physics has grown significantly. When she arrived, the department averaged about three to four graduates each year. Now they average about 15 physics graduates a year.

The newly revitalized physical science facilities, a very active Society of Physics Students club, and the college’s focus on undergraduate research likely account for much of the growth, she said.

Wright was active in the development of Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning. From 2003 to 2005, she was a member of the Odyssey Task Force, a faculty committee that developed the program’s categories and requirements.

Last year, she was chair of the Committee on Engaged Learning, which receives “ hundreds of proposals” each year for funding support. Over the past several years as a CEL member, she has read thousands of proposals.

“That’s amazing,” she said.

It’s absolutely vital for students too.

“Odyssey is a big part of the research that we do,” she said.

The program provides funding for students to conduct research with faculty during the summer. It also supports students attending and presenting their research at professional conferences and meetings, such as the American Physical Society. Students have also received Odyssey credit for internships at corporations using physics in industry.

Wright would love to see the college acquire more private funding to support Odyssey projects.

“There are a lot of really good Odyssey projects (proposed for funding), it is so difficult to choose,” she said.

When Wright leaves the lab, she heads home to Little Rock, where she lives with her husband and their daughter Elizabeth, 8, in a “a real zoo,” including a horse, a donkey, a mule, dogs, cats, and rabbits.