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Physics professor wins NSF award to develop physics of medicine course materials

June 11, 2012 | By Nick Alexopulos

Mary Lowe, Ph.D., professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland, has won an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to co-develop three teaching modules that relate physics principles to medicine in an effort to attract more students to the physics discipline.

The project, “Collaborative Research: Physics of Medicine,” will be funded through NSF’s Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics program. Over the next three years, Lowe will collaborate with Nancy Donaldson, Ph.D., professor of physics at Rockhurst University, who recently created a successful physics of medicine (POM) minor at her Jesuit institution in Kansas City, Mo. Many schools struggle to attract students who show interest in the physics major or the physics curriculum in general, but Lowe and Donaldson believe POM can reverse that trend because the courses include concepts that are easily applicable and much less abstract than what is commonly taught in traditional physics classes.

“It’s very difficult for students taking physics courses to see the immediate relevance of course material in their everyday lives,” said Lowe. “If we want to engage a larger group of students, we have to make the material more relevant. We know that weaving physics and medicine has generated results, and with the NSF funding we have the opportunity to share POM resources and strategies with our colleagues across the country.”

Lowe and Donaldson will use the $199,979 total award, of which Loyola received $88,847, to create upper-division active learning (“hands-on”) physics modules in fiber optics and light delivery, nuclear physics and nuclear medicine, and pressure in the human body, and all will relate physics principles to medicine. While there is enough material for these topics to be stand-alone classes, the physics major is structured so that students cannot devote time to hyper-specialized courses. The modules developed by Lowe and Donaldson will allow instructors to incorporate practical, applicable material into existing or new courses, as appropriate. Each module will be available online and will include student guides, instructor materials, and other resources to ensure effective implementation.

With this project, Lowe also hopes to encourage increased enrollment of women in upper-division physics courses. Lowe is also one of seven women faculty at Loyola who were recently accepted into a national mentoring network that offers professional and personal support for female math and science professors at undergraduate institutions across the country. That mentoring project is part of another collaborative NSF program grant led by Gonzaga University. Earlier this year, Loyola announced it had partnered with Gonzaga and 10 other institutions and won the grant to assist women faculty in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, where women are often underrepresented in all stages of their careers.

Lowe has taught physics at Loyola since 1988. She earned her Ph.D. in Experimental Condensed Matter Physics from the University of Pennsylvania and has an A.B. in Chemistry and Physics from Harvard University.

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