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Esteemed Physicist and Mentor

March 11, 2007

  • Ward Plummer ‘62

Ward Plummer grew up in Warrenton, a tiny fishing and timber town hunkered at the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria. His parents–survivors of the Great Depression and the devastating Dust Bowl days in Kansas–shared the nation’s obsession with beating the Russians in the space race.

With aspirations of working in the aerospace industry, Plummer studied mathematics and physics at Lewis & Clark. He next headed to Cornell University to earn his doctorate in physics, then to the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) in Washington, D.C. He stayed for five years as “the bottom fell out of the aerospace industry.” Plummer, who describes himself as too independent and mentally playful for promotion, left when the bureau sent him to management school. In 1973, he joined the physics department at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on innovative applications for electron spectroscopy.

Today, Plummer holds a joint appointment as Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Tennessee and Distinguished Scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He is also director of the cross-disciplinary Tennessee Advanced Materials Laboratory.

In April 2006, Plummer was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of his distinguished and original research achievements. He specializes in surface physics–investigating the electronic, magnetic, and structural properties of a material’s surface at the atomic scale. The author or coauthor of more than 300 publications, he is listed as one of the most cited scientists (1981–97) and has mentored more than 70 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Plummer credits several demanding mathematics teachers, both in high school and at Lewis & Clark, with teaching him discipline and shaping his mentoring style. They not only encouraged him to reach and to excel but threatened to throw him out of their classes if he showed signs of slacking. They believed in his ability to succeed.

Similarly, Plummer tells his students and postdoctoral fellows that if they write a research proposal, receive a grant, and accomplish their defined goals, they’ve failed. Instead, he strongly encourages them to explore new directions and find fresh approaches.

“My legacy will be the minds I molded, not the papers I wrote or the prizes I won,” says Plummer. “It’s all about training the next generation of scientists.”

–by Pattie Pace

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