SAERC, StFX grad moving up in the academic world

FLINT, MICHIGAN: A former resident of Port Hawkesbury is moving into an important new academic position this summer.

SAERC and StFX University graduate Gillian Ryan, has been named the new Director of Undergraduate Affairs in the Physics Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“My role there will be to really work with the undergraduates in the bachelors program in the Physics department, by doing professional development and advising, as well as working with the department heads, and the other faculty to develop new curriculum for their program,” Ryan told The Reporter.

After graduating from SAERC in 2000, Ryan earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from StFX in 2004, then her Ph.D. in physics in the Rutenberg Group at Dalhousie University in 2010. She is currently an Associate Physics Professor at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, where she has been since 2013.

“The role here is a mix of teaching and helping with research and what we call service work, which is really advising,” Ryan explained. “This is on a much smaller scale, since it’s a much smaller university.”

Throughout her academic career, Ryan said she constantly felt the pull towards teaching and interacting with students.

“For me, teaching, mentoring, and advising undergraduate students are the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of my work,” Ryan said. “[The Director of Undergraduate Affairs] position appealed to me because of the many opportunities it provides to apply my professional strengths to support a large, diverse group of physics students.”

According to Carnegie Mellon University, this new position was created to emphasize the importance of teaching and advising in the department. Ryan will be taking over the new job in July.

Advising is critical to student success both during their time in university and after, as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs Maggie Braun explains.

“Our advisors do so much more than just help students select courses to fill requirements – they offer a holistic approach to help students develop and prepare so many ways for life after graduation,” said Braun. “Our advisors often connect our students with opportunities they didn’t know of, alumni in positions of interest, and support them through difficult personal situations, among many other areas of support.”

“We aim to provide students with access to state-of-the-art research and other benefits of a large university while maintaining the small-school community feeling that is our hallmark,” said Scott Dodelson, head of the Department of Physics. “The Director of Undergraduate Affairs will have as her main responsibility the fostering of this community and ensuring that each student gets the individual attention that will empower them to succeed.”

Ryan’s teaching and advising style is very student-centric. She believes active listening, engaging with students on their level, and encouraging passion and participation leads to student success.

“As an advisor it is my role to support students as they pursue their goals, and to tailor that support to best meet each student’s individual circumstances and needs whenever possible,” she said.

Ryan’s research background is in computational biological physics. She made headlines in 2015 for her work in warming blanket technology for newborn infants in developing nations. This project alone involved an understanding of crystal formation, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and nanoparticles.

“I aim to help students make connections between different disciplines and to identify transferable skills, such as quantitative reasoning or critical thinking, as they apply them,” Ryan said.

She is also actively involved in initiatives to improve undergraduate physics education. She currently serves on the organizing committee for the Partnership for Integration of Computation into Undergraduate Physics (PICUP), a group dedicated to supporting the development and improvement of undergraduate physics education through organic integration of computation across its curriculum.

Looking back on her formative years at SAERC and StFX, Ryan said she was very fortunate to have been taught by so many great teachers and to attend great schools.

“I really lucky at SAERC to have really great science and math teachers,” Ryan noted. “Really all teachers across the board. They prepared me for undergraduate work, but in particular, Physics was my favourite class.

“I was really lucky at StFX because of the great environment to be an undergraduate. I was able to do research right after my freshman year so I was working on campus, doing scientific research with a professor and I kind of caught the bug. It was really exciting to be able to work on these real world problems and apply Physics to different areas.”

Ryan now has to work-out the logistics of moving from Michigan to Pennsylvania in the middle of a pandemic.

Gillian’s parents, Monica and Gordon Ryan reside in Port Hawkesbury and she added that after visiting last year on Thanksgiving Day, she hopes to return home as soon as possible.

“I try to get to Cape Breton when I can,” Ryan added. “I hope to go home this summer but I don’t know if I want to get on an airplane right now.”