Lehigh University
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GAANN grant provides support for Lehigh graduate fellows

Lehigh’s physics department is giving graduate students the opportunity to advance both their research and their instructional skills, thanks to a prestigious GAANN Fellowship Grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Fellows in the GAANN program, or Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need, work in areas of high demand. In the field of physics, students are able to further their education in areas of need such as biophysics, photonics, nanophysics and fusion energy. At Lehigh, students in the program are exposed early on to a wide range of active research programs, enabling them to engage in areas likely to have a strong impact on science and technology.

“Usually funding for graduate students comes from research grants and teaching assistantships which require the student to perform specific tasks in return,” says Volkmar Dierolf, associate professor of physics who oversees the fellowship program. “The GAANN program is unique because the fellow is the center of the program and it prepares them for teaching as well as for work in a specialty.”

Three Lehigh students were awarded the GAANN fellowship in fall 2007, and the Department of Physics is now recruiting fellows for the second year of this three-year program. The program is designed to help guide students to the successful completion of a Ph.D. in five years.

“The fellows benefit from a lighter teaching load early in the program,” says Dierolf. “This gives students the ability to work on research and accelerate their progress toward a Ph.D.”

Two fellows are well underway with their research. Christina Aragona in the astrophysics program was awarded the GAANN fellowship in the second year of her Ph.D. program. Aragona has been working with assistant professor Ginny McSwain to explore binary stars by examining their spectra. Elsewhere in the department, Christopher Wolfe is working with professor John Huennekens in molecular physics, researching highly excited states of the NaK molecule.

In addition to tuition, fellows receive a laptop and funding to attend conferences and professional meetings. Students are also eligible for a stipend of up to $30,000 depending on their financial need.

Another GAAN fellow, Matthew Smith, says the fellowship has helped him in his field of study and afforded him extra time to focus on classes and on teaching physics. Since the grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, this emphasis on teaching sits at the core of the fellowship and creates an opportunity for Ph.D. candidates to develop the technical skills required of instructors in the field of physics, making them more viable candidates for faculty positions at colleges and universities.

“Teaching is a part of the program, and helps make students effective communicators while providing them with supervised teaching experience,” says Dierolf. “It gives them confidence in the material from the perspective of an instructor. Once they get out of the program they can get an assistant professorship position and already have material in hand to teach undergraduates.”

“Probably the first thing we’ll have to do is to teach an introductory course when we begin our careers,” Aragona agrees. “The GAANN fellows present lectures on introductory physics topics to Dr. Dierolf and each other, and receive feedback both on what works and how we can improve our lecture style.”

Wolfe says the fellowship has also allowed him to investigate different teaching methods. “We focus as much as possible on conceptual problems and let the textbook problems explain the quantitative side of things,” says Wolfe. “It allows you to look at different alternatives and teaching methods from an objective stand point.”

For more information on the GAANN Fellowship Program in the Department of Physics, contact Volkmar Dierolf at (610) 758-3915.

--Tricia Long

Posted on Monday, February 11, 2008

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