Meet the 2020 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor: Dr. Robert McTaggart

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

Meet the 2020 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor: Dr. Robert McTaggart


Kendra Redmond, Editor

The SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor Award is the most prestigious award given by SPS, bestowed annually on the basis of the leadership, student leadership development, support, and encouragement the advisor has provided to their chapter. For his leadership and guidance of the SPS chapter at South Dakota State University, Dr. Robert Taggart is the 2019–20 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor.

McTaggart prepares for class. Photo courtesy of South Dakota State University.As an undergrad at West Virginia University, Robert McTaggart spent time working in Professor Mark Koepke’s plasma physics lab. McTaggart looks back with fondness. “I appreciated the comradery there. Pizza on Fridays was always the best. It sounds simple, but sometimes just being included matters.”

Being included matters a lot, as McTaggart’s students at South Dakota State University (SDSU) attest. In a letter nominating McTaggart for the Outstanding Advisor Award, one student noted, “Dr. McTaggart always encouraged us to participate in all physics, astronomy, and nuclear-science-related activities on and off campus during our freshman year. As a result, almost all of the students in our freshman physics seminar class joined the SPS club.”

Under McTaggart’s leadership, SPS has become one of the most active and visible student groups at SDSU. Among other recent accomplishments, in 2018 the chapter hosted a Zone 11 meeting for the first time in 25 years, with great success. The chapter has grown increasingly active in SPS nationally and is currently studying lithium-ion battery technology under a 2019–20 SPS Chapter Research Award. Planning is already underway to get students from South Dakota to Washington, DC, for the 2022 Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Congress—no easy feat for a chapter without a history of fundraising.

McTaggart has an open-door policy that’s reflected in the SPS chapter. “[SPS provides] a welcoming place where you do not have to apologize for being who you are, and others understand the issues you are dealing with,” McTaggart says. He doesn’t say that from a safe distance—he’s been on the road trips. “You learn a lot about your students when you travel with them to a regional SPS meeting. That is always worth it, and we laugh a lot.”

After graduating from West Virginia University, McTaggart earned a PhD in particle physics at Penn State. He jumped into teaching even before graduating, filling an emergency opening while completing his thesis. From there he took a lecture position, then a visiting assistant professorship, and then a tenure-track position at SDSU. “I have tended to go where physics has taken me,” he explains.

In addition to teaching and mentoring, McTaggart is coordinator of nuclear education at SDSU, overseeing a minor in nuclear engineering. He studies the irradiation of materials and devices and is working on the simulation of a space-based neutrino detector. McTaggart also oversees several undergraduates working on health physics and medical physics research projects.

When he’s not doing physics, you’re likely to find McTaggart cheering on the SDSU wrestling team or working in his prairie garden. He enjoys the communal aspect of wrestling, the excitement and school spirit it promotes, and aims to foster that spirit within the SPS chapter. Gardening offers a way to experience the natural world and absorb what it has to offer. In some ways, McTaggart’s approach to working with students is similar to the way he approaches a new prairie plant. “Put it in a nice spot, where it gets some sun, some rain, and it just takes off.”

“Outstanding” Advice
To students, McTaggart says, “There are so many leadership opportunities available in SPS to develop a really strong and unique resume. If the title of a desired job includes ‘engineering,’ you should definitely apply to it as a physics major who has shown leadership in SPS.”
To advisors, “The chapter report is an undervalued asset. It is a great opportunity to communicate all of the good things the chapter has done to the department head, dean, and the administration, if not the public.”

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