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Golf-playing physicists appreciated opportunity to compete

MC
02/28/2014
Having a passion for both athletics and physics may seem like an unlikely combination, but it has become a regular occurrence at Monmouth College, where four leading members of the Fighting Scots men’s golf team happen to be leaders in the science lab, too.

Senior Jared Johnson of Chillicothe and junior Gage DeCook of Port Byron are continuing a recent tradition, started by Rodney Clayton ’11 and Brandon Kemerling ’13.

Johnson plans to pursue a Ph.D. at one of four Big Ten universities or the University of Notre Dame. He completed a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at Notre Dame last summer, studying black holes, relativistic jets and accretion discs while modeling a theory by Stanford University emeritus professor Robert Wagoner. DeCook will complete a 3:2 program, earning a physics degree at Monmouth at the end of his third year this May before studying for an engineering degree during the final two years. He is currently considering four schools, including the University of Illinois and Iowa State University.

The students, who both have GPAs of 3.9, will follow a road paved by Clayton (Missouri University of Science & Technology) and Kemerling (Ohio State University). While in graduate school, Clayton was selected for a prestigious 10-week internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center, calling it “a one-of-a-kind experience.” At MUS&T, he received a graduate research assistantship to work on a laser additive manufacturing (LAM) project funded by NASA.

“LAM is a relatively new manufacturing technology,” he explained. “It uses a laser and powder metal to ‘print’ almost any 3-D part imaginable. Besides my assistantship, I took numerous courses in metallurgy, which expanded my knowledge in that area.”

Kemerling’s work also focuses on manufacturing – specifically, laser welding processes and performing computer simulations on those welds, using computational fluid dynamics.

“My dream job would be to work in research and development for Acushnet in California,” he said. “They are one of the world leaders in golf club manufacturing. If I could integrate my academic work with my passion for golf, it would be the perfect scenario for me.”

“I had a class with Rodney, and I was close with Brandon,” said Johnson. “I definitely picked up from them how to conduct myself in the physics classroom, as well as on the golf course. They both showed me the ropes.”

“Rodney and Brandon set the bar pretty darn high,” agreed DeCook, who chose Monmouth, due in part to the influence of yet another MC golfer, Ryan Tapscott, a fellow graduate of Riverdale High School. “They were strong players and outstanding students in a difficult major.”

One edge that Johnson and DeCook have on their predecessors is the use of the college’s new Center for Science and Business, which opened last fall.

“If a scientific project costs too much, it’s not going anywhere,” said Johnson. “It’s been helpful to have that collaboration with the business department and to see things from that perspective.”

Not only does Johnson exemplify academic and athletic excellence, he also aspires to answer a call by Monmouth College president Ditzler to seek a career in the Midwest and use the region’s resources to help solve global issues related to food and fuel.

“I want to work with energy, things like renewable fuel cells,” said Johnson, whose Ph.D. will be in either materials science engineering or chemical and biomolecular engineering.

DeCook plans to pursue civil engineering, a field he got a taste of during an internship last summer for John Deere & Co. at its Waterloo, Iowa, facility.

“I went around the facilities and analyzed static elements like loading docks, looking for structural flaws,” he said.

Integrating golf and physics was an important part of his Monmouth experience, Kemerling said.

“Having that balance in my life definitely helped me get through tougher times as far as coursework went. The class sizes at Monmouth are such a huge advantage. Sitting in some of the classes at OSU with 60 or more students, you simply cannot interrupt class with a question you may have. In some of my physics classes at Monmouth, we had three students,” making it much easier to work closely with professors.

Kemerling and Johnson worked together on one of the first projects involving the college’s 15,000 frames per second high-speed camera, which was purchased in 2010. Then, as a senior, Kemerling used the high-speed imagery and tracking software on water bottle rockets in order to determine relationships between the different amounts of water and pressure in the bottle.

Clayton also recalled a memorable project from his undergraduate days.

“Henry Schmidt and I developed a hybrid remote control vehicle,” he said. “We also had the opportunity to present our research at a conference in Vancouver. We had seen a posting for travel grants to the conference, but we were hesitant to apply since it was a mechanical engineering conference and we were physics majors. Dr. Fasano encouraged us to still apply, and we were lucky enough to be one of the few to receive grants to attend the conference.”

As a senior, Clayton participated in the college’s summer research program, working on the remote control vehicle while also mentoring two incoming freshmen.

“It was a great opportunity to pass some of my knowledge and experiences on to younger students,” he said.

Clayton had a dream season in 2010, leading the Scots to their second straight NCAA tournament while earning medalist honors at the conference meet. Since that season, Monmouth has three straight runner-up finishes in the MWC, and Johnson and DeCook vow to change that this spring.

“We have three dates circled, and they’re all in May,” said Johnson, referring to the 54-hole conference tournament, scheduled for May 1-3 at Aldeen Golf Course in Rockford. The winning team advances to the NCAA Championships in Greensboro, N.C.

What is it about golf and physics that makes them an attractive coupling for Monmouth student-athletes? Dave Ragone, who has coached the men’s team to five Midwest Conference championships since taking over the program in 2001, offered his thoughts.

“Great academics and great golf go hand in hand,” he said. “The ability to be intrinsically motivated, structured and organized are key factors in both the classroom and the golf course. We have been very fortunate to have a great physics/pre-engineering department here at Monmouth, play some great golf and graduate and place our students at prestigious post graduate institutions.”

Personalities may contribute to Monmouth’s successful physics/golf connection. Ragone, who also coaches the offensive line and special teams for the Scots football team, brings what Johnson called an “enthusiastic” approach to coaching his spring sport.

Clayton praised physics professor Chris Fasano for building a strong, innovative department and said it was a major reason behind his choice to attend Monmouth.

“I knew I wanted to do engineering and science, but I also wanted to play golf for all four years,” said Clayton, echoing a sentiment shared by the other three student-athletes. “I visited Monmouth several times and was very impressed by Coach Ragone but was also impressed by Dr. Fasano and the physics department. After talking with Dr. Fasano, he helped me see that Monmouth would be a great place to receive a quality education that would lead to a career in engineering but still allow me to pursue collegiate athletics.”

“I’m sure that the diligence that they show in the classroom and lab feeds and is fed by their diligence on the course and with the team,” said Fasano. “I know that they will be some of our best alums.”

Today, Clayton is the staff metallurgist at Boardwalk Pipeline Partners in Houston, Texas.

“I really enjoy the company I work for and my position here,” he said. “It’s a great industry to be in, and I’m learning more and more on a daily basis. Hopefully, these experiences will allow me to move up in the company as a metallurgist – just as long as there’s still time to get a round of golf in.”