Bringing Physics Alive for Students: Meet Professor Gordon Thomas

Professor Gordon Thomas shown wearing the tonometer, a device that could prevent people with glaucoma from going blind.

Professor Gordon Thomas makes physics fun.  In his classes, students learn the principles of physics by doing demonstrations.  In one demo, his students design a model of the human eye, from which they measure how the eye focuses and detects light.  In another, they discern how a quartz watch keeps time.

Teaching physics the conventional way -- relying on textbook theory -- drains the lifeblood from the subject, says Thomas.

“It’s uninspiring to teach physics without letting students see the many fascinating ways it can be applied,” adds Thomas. “Good physics teachers let their students learn by working on experiments.”

Thomas’s interest in physics was first prompted by a good teacher. When in middle school, the young Thomas would arrive from school and regale his parents with endless anecdotes about his physics class.  Inspired, Thomas studied physics in college and graduate school.  Later, he worked as a researcher at Bell Laboratories, then the world’s premier research lab. There, Thomas’s study of optical communications helped develop the purest optical fiber, for which he holds a patent. Altogether while working at Bell Labs, Thomas acquired 16 patents and published 150 research papers. For his achievements, he was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society, an honor given only to the leading 3 percent of physicists in the nation.

After Bell Labs, Thomas worked on biophysics research at MIT. And now, as a physics professor at NJIT, he calls upon everything he’s ever learned about physics to bring it alive for his students.  He also continues to do pioneering research.  Recently, he, along with his students, invented a device that could prevent people with glaucoma from going blind. 

In this interview, Thomas discusses that research. He also talks about his teaching, his background and his life-long infatuation with the field he loves best: physics.

Can you talk about how your teacher got you interested in physics? 
My science teacher at a public middle school in Rhode Island kindled my interest in physics. He was a fantastic teacher because he not only taught us about science but also made everything come alive with hands-on demonstrations.  I’d come home every night telling my parents over and over about what he had said that day.  Later, my high school physics teacher didn’t know anything about science, as far as I could tell.  But I was so turned on by earlier experience that I just sat down with a group of friends and learned from the best physics book we could find.  I was a little behind in physics when I got to college, but I found a professor who let me work in his lab over one summer and my interest took off again.

Your teacher did a lot of demonstrations, and you do the same in your physics classes now, right?
Absolutely.  I have a great time with my biophysics classes, where I set things up so the students can do the demos for each other.  I love making clear the connection between the basic theories in physics and exciting applications.  I think presenting just the ideas without their applications and their relation to exciting jobs, is uninspiring to students. Many good physics teachers at NJIT let their students learn by having fun seeing interesting technology where the physics comes to life.

If a student is in high school and likes physics, would you encourage him or her to major in physics in college?
Definitely.  Physics lifts you to a position after college where you can flourish with new technology because you’ve learned the basics.  Many excellent managers, such as the previous CEO of Boeing, have been physics majors.

Can you talk about the device you and your students invented to help people who have glaucoma?
My biophysics students and I have invented a device that measures people’s eye pressure.  We want to help people with glaucoma and the doctors who help them.  Although the device, called a tonometer, is not yet commercially available, what’s new with this device is that people could take it home and use it to monitor their conditions between doctor visits. Our device sits on a hat to keep it steady.  It’s comfortable to use because it has a little robot that touches the eyelid gently and measures how hard the eye is.  The eye becomes harder when the pressure in the eye is higher. 

Is a high pressure reading a sign that there’s a problem?
Periods of high pressure in the eye are serious and very often lead to blindness.  So our device can help patients save their eyesight.  When they get a high reading, patients will contact their doctors.  It might be that their medication needs to be modified. It might be something else. But whatever it is, the patient will catch it quickly by using our tonometer.  Patients would still visit their eye doctor, but the doctor would have more information about what’s happening between visits. 

How far along is your device from being on the market?
We’re working hard to help patients get a device they can afford as soon as possible.  We’ve built and tested a lab model of our device. We’ve also partnered with the ophthalmology clinic at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), and we’ve made more than 30,000 measurements on patients.  The tests have shown our device works, although we’re still improving it. The next stage is to form a partnership with a company to get regulatory permission to use our tonometer beyond our tests and then transform it into a product. 

Do you always have students help you do your research?
Essentially all my research is done by students, primarily physics majors.  I think of myself as the coach.  Last summer we had three students helping with the tonometer: a high school student from Union, Luis Mendez, an undergraduate physics major from NJIT, Stephanie Milczarski, and a PhD student in physics who just graduated from NJIT and is a professor in North Carolina, Irene Nwosuh.  We’ve recently added a sophomore at NJIT, Sterling Prince, to our team. 

Do you ever collaborate with your fellow professors at NJIT?
I work closely on the tonometer project with Professor Tara Alvarez, of the Biomedical Engineering Department. She’s an expert in eye motion and has helped us with many aspects of the tonometer.  Also, in the Physics Department I work closely with Professor Reginald Farrow, who is doing great work in nano-sensors for biological cells. This also helps the students, since it exposes them to professor working in different fields.   

I think most high school students would be surprised to learn that physics majors work on medical research.  How is that physics? And what kind of research do your students do?
Working on new medical devices is part of physics, in particular biophysics, which is now my major focus.  Physics is the process of trying to understand how nature works – all parts of nature.  If we want to measure something, like the eye, we make or buy a device that we think will do the job, and we use the basic principles of physics to understand both the device and the eye.  Then we improve the device based on our understanding.  Physics is at the core of all new technological advances.  The applications of physics are really neat and all over the place and changing all the time.  My students get to work on a lot of interesting projects, like designing devices with potential applications for head injuries, physical therapy, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes as well as glaucoma.

You use physics to help people, medically speaking. Can you talk about that?
We start every project by talking with doctors about what we can do that will help their patients.  So our projects always attempt to help solve a real medical need or problem.  Then, the focus of my work is to teach my students to innovate and to advance those innovations so that directly help patients and their doctors.

Over the years, you have used physics in different ways, or fused it with different fields.  
True.  I first did basic experimental physics on interesting materials, like materials that can change from a metal to an insulator.  I then switched to physic’s applications that improved optical communications -- even the supermarket checkout scanner.  I later moved to MIT and then NJIT because I wanted to help people with medical problems.  And I took an interest in the medical applications of physics shortly after my brother died of pancreatic cancer.  I realized then that I knew practically nothing that would have helped him and I resolved to learn more.

You worked at Bell Labs when it was in its heyday – when it was the world’s premier research center. What was that like?
Bell Labs was like Camelot.  Nearly everything was as good as you could imagine for discovering new knowledge and new technology.  At Bell, most of us worked in teams and together accomplished things that none of us could have accomplished individually.  Like Camelot, though, the Bell Labs I knew has vanished and research universities like NJIT must do what they can to fill the breach.  

When they graduate from NJIT, do physics majors get interesting jobs?
Physics majors do very well.  My students and physics students in general have no trouble getting jobs.  The key to their success is that when they meet new technology they are able to figure it out based on their understanding of physics.  They tend to thrive on new stuff and they tend to advance as a result.  In general, since physics majors understand how things work, they tend to lead others in advancing technology and often become managers.  The study of physics is extremely rewarding and I highly recommend it to students. It’s given me, and my former students, a lifetime of satisfaction and success.  

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)