Mark Sellers ′15

Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri

Major: Physics
Minor: Spanish

Academic interests: Physics research, teaching, science-policy advocacy and outreach, Spanish, politics, and jazz.

Extracurricular activities: Jazz band, saxophone lessons, cycling, Society of Physics Students (Communications Officer for ’12-’13), Pink Palace education intern (Summer ’13-Spring ’14), physics peer tutor (’13-present).

Tell the story of how you got to Rhodes College.

Johnny Cash’s song “I’ve Been Everywhere” comes to mind. Being the youngest of three, I was an unwilling participant in almost every college search road-trip for Laura, the oldest, and later Emily, the middle child. I took my first steps on the Rhodes campus 11 years ago at the age of 10, when Laura first visited Rhodes.  To give you some perspective, my first visit predates the Barret Library. And I continuously returned to campus with my family to visit Laura (’08), and even later when Emily (’11) visited and ultimately chose Rhodes. 

When I started my search, I was leaning towards a science major. In that sense, I was starting completely fresh from my siblings (who majored in international studies and political science.) I was looking for a strong science department that promoted research and student-teacher mentorship. I also knew I wanted a smaller, liberal arts school that wouldn’t box me into just studying science, since Spanish and music were significant components of my education. Out of all the schools I looked at, Rhodes stood out as the best choice for me to unify my academic interests. I’m very happy with my choice, since Rhodes has opened several doors for my future because of the incredible mentors that have helped me discover who I am and what I want to do.

How have you changed since beginning your studies at Rhodes College?

When I first started at Rhodes, I didn’t have a clear end-goal, apart from becoming a scientist. That attitude changed after one of Dr. Brent Hoffmeister’s Fundamentals of Physics labs, when he took me aside and told me he saw I had a high potential. He asked me to become one of his research assistants.  That set into motion my whole evolution as a scientist, as I discovered I thoroughly enjoyed research. In my sophomore year, I attended the 2012 Quadrennial Physics Congress, hosted by the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma. This conference brings together all Society of Physics Students chapters in the United States for several days of meetings, student research presentations, and activities. During the conference, I attended a workshop on the importance of having active scientists in politics. That workshop opened my eyes to the importance of maintaining a healthy, productive relationship between scientists and policymakers. I knew I wanted to become an advocate for science, so with support from Dr. Hoffmeister and the physics department, I engaged myself with the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis to become one of their first science education interns.

I knew that I wanted to unify research, teaching, and advocacy. Now, I have a clear idea of who I want to become—a physics professor and mentor for future generations of scientists as well as the public.

Your physics research was recently selected to be shared with the Society of Physics Students (SPS) nationwide. Tell us a bit about your work, as well as what prompted you to pursue publication.

I applied for the SPS intern program this past summer, which encompasses various programs at NASA, NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), Congress, and SPS. I was selected as one of their SPS SOCK (Science Outreach Catalyst Kit) interns, who research and develop a kit of science activities and demonstrations. The kit is distributed, for free, to 25 SPS chapters across the United States to promote outreach activities by SPS chapters and to expose young students in their communities to hands-on science. The SOCK is also meant to appeal to a broad range of ages—all the way from kindergarten to seniors in high school. Therefore, the SOCK has to be flexible with its lessons and activities, meaning that high school students have experiments that actually produce data, while elementary and middle school students have more conceptual activities.

Every annual SOCK has a theme, and the focus for 2014 is how we use light as a tool. As an example, one of the demonstrations involves fiber-optic cables (long strands of clear plastic or glass), which relates to how Internet signals are transmitted and received by our computers. So a large portion of my summer was spent searching for appropriate SOCK activities, testing them out myself, assessing the cost of the activity parts, and finally writing up the student handbook that accompanies the kit.

I wanted this internship because I knew I would learn more about myself as a teacher, and the experience would also give me another opportunity to explore physics outside of the lab. I also wanted to create something to promote science advocacy. I definitely encourage you to read my blog (http://www.spsnational.org/programs/internships/2014/sellers.html) on the Society of Physics Students intern page! It goes into more depth about my experience researching, developing, prototyping, and producing the SOCK.

How has your study of physics influenced your Rhodes experience, both inside and out of the classroom?

Studying physics at Rhodes has taught me that, no matter what you focus on, there is always a connection between your discipline and the disciplines of others. The Rhodes connections have definitely opened up doors for me, such as my experience at the Pink Palace as an education intern. In the spring of 2014, Luke Spinolo ’15 and I went with Dr. Hoffmeister to Washington, D.C., to present at the Posters on the Hill conference. The goal of this event is to promote the policymaker-scientist relationship and facilitate conversations between the two about the importance of science. We met personally with Representatives Cleaver (MO-5), Fincher (TN-8), and Cohen (TN-9), and Senator Corker (TN) to discuss our research on osteoporosis. Inspired by that experience, I am currently enrolled in Dr. Renee Johnson’s public policy course, where I have chosen to pursue in-depth study of the science policy process and methods from the perspective of a political scientist. So, what we study and do at Rhodes definitely has real-world implications, as policymakers need scientists that can help them craft policies that help the general public and scientists. After graduation, I plan to go to graduate school, where I intend to pursue Ph.D. studies in physics.