By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Specialist, Society for Science & the Public
As SSP continues its efforts to reconnect with alumni, we have learned a lot about the many innovative people who have benefited from SSP education programs. We were especially pleased to hear recently from Paul Barthel, who was one of SSP’s very first alumni, as he was a Finalist in the first Science Talent Searchin 1942.
“When I was told I was among the 40 Finalists I was honored, scared, almost panicked.” he says, reflecting on how the recognition challenged his perception of what he could do in college and beyond. “Participating in the Science Talent Search was a big influence on my choosing to concentrate my later studies in science, especially in physics,” he says. “I had long wanted to become a science teacher and I was quietly impressed that scientists recognized in the field accepted my potential in the field, and it increased my confidence that I could do advanced study in physics and math.”
Similar to today’s program, the 40 Finalists visited Washington, D.C. for a week, toured the city, met significant figures in science and politics, including Vice President Henry Wallace, and competed. However, unlike today’s competition in which applicants submit original research projects, in the very early years of the program, applicants submitted an essay. “The essay that I had written on was ‘How Science will win the War.’ I think that general topic may have been assigned to the whole group. Then the judges asked questions about our individual thoughts,” Paul says, adding that the judges were very encouraging.
Paul took that encouragement and went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics and math at the University of Texas at Austin. His dream of teaching came to fruition and he taught at St. Edward’s University, also in Austin, for several years before becoming head of the Science Division there. After doing supplementary summer study related to nuclear physics at Cornell University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he initiated a physics major at St. Edwards. However, Paul says, “ I wanted to return to classroom teaching (which I greatly enjoyed) so I returned to classroom teaching at St. Edward’s and continued there until my retirement. Since that time I have been doing volunteer tutoring in introductory physics at St. Edward’s. I still enjoy teaching!”