Committed to Student Success—Gary White and Willie Rockward Receive Seagondollar Service Awards

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Committed to Student Success—Gary White and Willie Rockward Receive Seagondollar Service Awards


Kendra Redmond, Editor

Gary White and Willie Rockward both hail from Louisiana and are now physics professors on the East Coast. Colleagues describe both as passionate physics professors and excellent mentors. Neither really planned on majoring in physics, and neither is wary of a road trip with students.

At the 2022 Physics Congress, the SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma Executive Committee recognized White and Rockward for another commonality: an exemplary level of commitment and service to the societies. For this they each received a rare Worth Seagondollar Service Award.

Gary White: Expanding Opportunities


 Gary White shows off his new Worth Seagondollar Award medal. Photo by SPS.

When asked to declare a major at Northeast Louisiana University, White wasn’t sure what to do.

“I wanted to major in science, but a campus advisor told me that it wasn’t possible to do all of science,” he says. So he asked, “How do you get in that observatory?” The advisor replied, “Well, you'd have to major in physics, probably.”

Physics was a great fit. The small department didn’t have an active SPS chapter, but White was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma there. “I didn't really register what Sigma Pi Sigma was,” he says, “but I thought it was a good idea to join.”

After earning a PhD in physics from Texas A&M University, White interviewed for a professorship at Northwestern State University of Louisiana (NSU). “By noon they had offered me the job,” he says. He didn’t realize then he’d be the only physics professor at NSU.

In addition to teaching, White advised NSU’s fledgling SPS chapter. By leveraging award money from the SPS office, he often secured matching funds from the school. This significantly expanded opportunities for his students.

In a particularly memorable experience, White and a dozen students road tripped to Atlanta, Georgia, for an American Physical Society March Meeting. That was the first time many of them had crossed the state line, and seven presented research. 

After a few years at NSU, White was elected to the SPS Council, and he eventually became president. Then the SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma director position opened. Although it meant moving to Washington, DC, “The impact you could have in that kind of job made me want to go,” White says.

When he became director in 2001, White further expanded opportunities for students. A highlight of his tenure was growing the Physics Congress into what it is today. The 2004 Congress, White’s first as director, brought a few hundred people to the testing ground of the first atomic bomb, the Trinity Site in New Mexico. The 2008 Congress, hosted at Fermilab in Illinois, exceeded expectations.

“We had something like 800 people register, and Fermilab told us they could only hold 600,” White says. “I remember driving there a few weeks before the congress, we were scrawling out plans on the floor of the van for how to fit everyone,” he recalls. “But it worked out beautifully.”

The SPS Summer Internship Program blossomed under White’s leadership. Each summer, more than a dozen physics and astronomy undergraduates come to Washington, DC, to work in policy, research, industry, or communication. The experience helps students see “the breadth of what they can do with their degree,” White says. 

As director, White prioritized building partnerships, increasing diversity, and raising the profile of students. Inspired by the trip to Atlanta, he also helped secure undergraduate research sessions at several national meetings.

In 2012, after more than ten years as director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, White passed the torch. He is currently editor of the academic journal The Physics Teacher, and an adjunct physics professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC. And, of course, he’s the SPS advisor.

About Worth Seagondollar

L. Worth Seagondollar spent 40 years as a Sigma Pi Sigma advisor, first at the University of Kansas and then at North Carolina State University. As Sigma Pi Sigma president in the 1960s, he was instrumental in the society’s merger with the American Institute of Physics Student Sections, which created the Society of Physics Students. In 1996 he was the first recipient of the award named in his honor.

Willie Rockward: Investing in the Future


Willie Rockward shows off his new Worth Seagondollar Award medal. Photo by SPS.

“Physics was not my first choice, was not my first love—it wasn’t even on my radar,” Rockward says. Two factors brought him to physics. First, his mother would only let him play high school football if he earned high grades in math and science. Second, he dreamed of playing football at Grambling State University. The school offered him a scholarship—in physics.

He made the football team, but didn’t stay long. “After about two or three weeks of practicing against the number one defense, a linebacker hit me so hard that I said, ‘Okay, I’m sticking with physics,’” he says. Rockward joined SPS at Grambling and was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma there.

His department chair often brought students to SPS zone meetings. “I remember going to one at the University of Texas at Dallas—we had a great time. We presented our research and met with other chapters,” Rockward recalls. 

He went on to get a PhD in physics at Georgia Institute of Technology and become a physics professor at Morehouse College, a historically black men's college in Atlanta. The department chair made him advisor of its struggling SPS chapter.

Inspired by his own experience, Rockward began taking students to SPS zone meetings to present research. White, then SPS director, saw the impressive Morehouse contingent at a zone meeting. He complimented Rockward, then nudged him. “You should consider running for SPS zone councilor.”

“I threw my name in the hat—and it was the only one,” Rockward laughs. As zone councilor he set up a zone meeting rotation in his region. Georgia, Alabama, and Florida took turns hosting zone meetings, and every fifth year, Puerto Rico. “We had the very first SPS zone meeting outside of the continental United States, and it was fabulous,” he says.

Rockward eventually became president of Sigma Pi Sigma, serving for two terms. During that time, he encouraged members to support physics and astronomy undergraduates with their time and money.

“At every council meeting, Steve Feller, then chair of the Congress Planning Committee, would stand up and challenge the council to give to SPS,” he recalls. “That still resounds in my mind, because if you really believe in an organization, you have to be willing to invest in it,” he says.

A highlight of Rockward's presidency was helping to establish the Congress Centennial Endowment Fund, which supports student travel to the Physics Congress in perpetuity. “We encouraged people to give in increments of powers of ten,” he says. And Rockward and the SPS Council led by example.

In 2018 Rockward moved from Morehouse to Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he is chair of the physics and engineering physics department. He’s working with its new SPS advisor to build up the chapter, and he’s the Sigma Pi Sigma advisor. 

“What keeps me invested in the society is seeing the breadth of the physics community. I get to see students—the upcoming generation, I get to see my colleagues, and I get to see my mentors, the people who were there before me,” he says. “Some of the students who started with me are now coming into SPS as zone councilors.” 

Learn more about the Congress Centennial Endowment Fund at or scan this QR code.



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