Faculty Focus: Donald Driscoll

by Cory Gray, Kent State Ashtabula Communications and Marketing Intern

Faculty Focus: 10 Questions is a new weekly feature where Kent State Ashtabula faculty members share their experiences, interests and advice for students. This set of questions is being answered by Dr. Donald Driscoll, associate professor of physics.

1: When did you start working at the campus?
I started around 2007. This is my twelfth year of teaching here. Before I worked here, I had a position at Case Western Reserve University where I got my Ph.D.

2: What do you teach?
Right now, I mainly teach the Kent Core Basic Science classes. These courses are Seven Ideas That Shook The Universe and Frontiers in Astronomy. These are my bread-and-butter courses. I also teach Physics for Health Technologies, which involves more math, and General College Physics, which I teach jointly with Mike Czayka both through the Trumbull Campus and also with a local high school.

Both of the General College Physics courses are hybrid online classes. Astronomy and Seven Ideas do have online versions, but they are very different courses compared to their in-class brethren. Online courses are more work, so you have to keep an eye on yourself to succeed. You are responsible for motivating yourself to do the work with this type of class.

I am also teaching a computer science course this semester called C++ Programming.

3: What inspired you to follow your chosen path of study?
Fate and happenstance, probably. Computer Science is a big part of Physics nowadays. Physics requires a lot of math and computer science to do it, which is why I teach the C++ Programming course. What I liked about Physics over Computer Science is the fundamental nature of it. It was fascinating to learn how things work at a basic level, like taking apart my alarm clock to put in a bigger speaker so it would wake me up. In my research career, I wanted to understand cosmology, what was going on in the universe, and how it all fits together.

4: What areas of research or other areas of academic pursuit do you focus on? What attracts/attracted you to that area and what do you find makes it so interesting?
During my research as a grad student at Case Western Reserve University, I worked in “Experimental Particle Astrophysics.” When I was working on my Ph.D. at CWRU, I never knew what was going to happen from one day to the next. The varied nature of research always makes it interesting. At the end of the day, I was mainly trying to figure out how things really worked. There were two big experiments I worked on while there. My Ph.D. was based on a search for dark matter by looking for WIMPs, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, which are one possible form of dark matter. When my thesis was published, it was the most significant non-detection of dark matter there was in the entire world. No one else has found dark matter yet, so it takes the sting out of that a little bit.

After that, I worked on a gamma-ray telescope, where I did an outstanding job of not detecting a few sources of gamma rays. It was the most significant non-detection of gamma rays from those sources at the time.
Science is not always about finding what you are looking for. Sometimes, the best part about science is finding something you were not looking for, even if you did not find anything at all. Dark matter is a peculiar thing. We know it is out there due to it having gravity, but we don’t know what it is.  WIMPs have been the most likely candidate for dark matter.  It is possible that WIMPs are not the type of thing dark matter is, and we might have to start looking somewhere else to figure out what dark matter is.

5: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was a kid, it would have probably been something involving rockets or dinosaurs. In high school, I was convinced I was going to Georgia Tech to major in computer science on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. Somewhere between my sophomore and junior year, I became interested in physics and switched my major to it. If you asked me what I wanted to do with that degree at the time, I would not have had a good answer for you. It was just something I was interested in and wanted to major in it, but I never really thought about what to do with the degree.

6: What is your favorite thing about teaching?
My favorite thing about teaching is when I am connecting with students and seeing their minds blown throughout the class. I like having them think about and see the world in a way they didn’t before. Seven Ideas works well for that because it takes what you thought about something and ultimately turns it around.

7: What do you like to do outside of campus?
I have two kids who are figure skaters, so a large portion of my life for the past 17 years has been spent at the rink. I also take attendance for their skating club most days of the week making sure people pay to go skating. There is not a lot of time for what I like to do.

I do like to read books, and my wife and I will watch something on Netflix together at the end of the day if there is time.

8: What makes this campus “Awesome”?
The people who work here make this campus awesome and that’s what makes it a good community. The advisors know the students, try to help them out with any issues they have, and help them become graduates. The teachers have small class sizes and get to know their students. You can make arrangements for them if you have a smaller load to deal with because you know them and their situations.

You don’t get that same kind of thing at a big campus, where a professor could have well over 150 students and not know them all by name.

9: What advice would you give to students?
Ask for help when you need it. As a professor on this campus, I am required by the school to have a minimum of five hours where I sit in my office to be available to students. No one comes to office hours, which is a significant resource that students are missing out on. Students never seem to want to go to the teacher for help. Once, one of my students even skipped class to go talk to a tutor.

Your professors are here to help you. Go to them if you need it.

10. What is the most helpful advice you have received?
This is not advice, but one of the best classes I ever took had homework every day in it. It was a pain to take that class, but it made sure that I kept up with the work.

Work on every class every day, at least a little bit. The best way to learn anything is through repeated self-quizzing.  Lots of short study times work better than cramming it all in at once.

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