Wisconsin-born researcher becomes BRIC’s first Ph.D.

WACO, TX - Just eighteen months after initiating operations, the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative is celebrating its first Ph.D. graduate.

Superior, Wisconsin native and CASPER doctoral student, Brandon Harris, successfully defended his dissertation June 18, 2014, before a panel of CASPER faculty from physics and mathematics. Dr. Truell Hyde, Baylor's vice provost for research and Harris' graduate advisor, chaired the panel.

As significant an achievement as this is, the awarding of this particular Ph.D. is especially noteworthy since it is also the first Ph.D. awarded from a group located within the BRIC. Hyde explains why Harris' upward climb through academia is a bit unusual.

"Brandon first came to Baylor while a junior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison," Hyde says. "He applied to take part in CASPER's summer REU program and came very highly recommended; so we brought him in."

Hyde refers to CASPER's Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which has been sponsored by the National Science Foundation since 1994. CASPER's REU program is one of numerous such programs around the country that bring outstanding science students to qualifying colleges and universities for ten weeks during the summer to work with faculty mentors on meaningful research projects. CASPER also holds an RET - Research Experience for Teachers - program that runs concurrently with the REU program for eight weeks. Baylor's REU/RET program is one of the longest running in the country.

During his short REU stint at Baylor, Harris worked on plasma research within Hyde's Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics, and Engineering Research (CASPER). That experience piqued an already growing interest in studying the complex clouds of ionized gases and dust particles known as "dusty plasmas." The difficulty of working with plasmas appealed to Harris' love of a challenge.

"Plasma is really the fourth state of matter," Harris says. "It's hard to understand, hard to confine, so that makes it a real challenge to study. It's estimated that 99-plus percent of matter in the universe is in the plasma state."

On graduation from UWM, Harris applied to a number of graduate schools, but Baylor - and mild Texas winters - were much on his mind.

"My last year in Madison had record snowfall. It was quite a hassle to deal with. Being around snow all my life, it wasn't such an exciting thing as when it snows here - I wanted to avoid all of that. Plus, Baylor has a beautiful campus and I liked Dr. Hyde at lot," Harris says. "He was very personable."

Harris returned to Baylor in 2008, teaching physics labs his first year back. He then became a research assistant for Dr. Hyde and worked steadily on plasma research at Hyde's lab at Texas State Technical College Waco, where the CASPER lab was located until the BRIC opened in January 2013.

Harris has applied around the country for a postdoctoral position that would allow him to pursue an interest for which his plasma experience makes him a natural fit - nuclear fusion.

"We continue to work on nuclear fusion as a possible energy source that could last for hundreds of years. It's a clean energy source, no carbon emissions, practically no radiation," he says. "It's exciting."

Though rightfully proud of his accomplishments, Harris admits that he will be just a little wistful when he walks across the stage to receive his diploma.

"I found out that graduation for my Ph.D. here at Baylor is going to be the same day as my ten-year high school reunion."

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.