Thrill of discovery, mentoring holds interest for 39 years

Thirty-nine years ago this fall, J. Thomas “Tom” Dickinson, a Regents Professor in physics, came to WSU. Since then, he has created an internationally recognized surface-science laboratory in his department.

“I came to WSU right out of graduate school at University of Michigan,” said Dickinson. “It was a very wise decision.”

Dickinson’s research is recognized worldwide, with colleagues from Japan and Europe visiting his laboratory regularly to work with him. His research has been funded continuously for 36 years by agencies such as the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, Navy, Air Force, NASA, NATO, and the National Institutes of Health. Currently his major topics of research are laser-materials interactions and nano-tribology (friction and wear on a nanometer-size scale).

Despite the accolades he receives for his research, Dickinson said the most rewarding aspect of his job is interacting with students.

“Their range of abilities, personalities and ambition is huge,” said Dickinson. “I am fortunate to have had good students in courses as well as my research students, including a large number of undergraduate summer students. I have put a lot of emphasis on promoting undergraduate research and scholarship throughout the university, and I think you will find WSU is becoming an exemplary institution.”

Indeed, Dickinson is a leader in undergraduate research and education. The many students he mentors go on to some of the best graduate schools in the country, said Matthew D. McCluskey, acting chair for the department of physics and astronomy. 

All of this and more have led to numerous university awards and recognitions for Dickinson, including the Marian E. Smith Award and the Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award in Instruction. Now he has a new one to add to the list: the 2007 Eminent Faculty Award. 

So, after 39 years, how does a researcher stay interested in the subject?

“Rediscovering and redefining what really excites you and interests you will take you much farther than focusing only on what can be funded,” said Dickinson. “A part of your professional life should be doing that wacky experiment that you just thought of! That’s what I like about working with undergraduates — they have no fear of a wild idea.”

About the award
The highest honor for WSU faculty comes with a $15,000 honorarium. The recipient must have served the university for at least 10 years, made lasting contributions in the field of expertise and contributed to the WSU community.

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