Kirtley Sheds Light on Physics, Research for Students

Thursday, February 22, 2024
Rose-Hulman Professor Sudipa Kirtley works with a student.

Award-winning Physics and Optical Engineering Professor Sudipa Kirtley, PhD, introduced hands-on laboratory experiences to help students learn physics principles. She also has provided unique research opportunities for undergraduate students.

As a young girl, an inquisitive Sudipa Mitra Kirtley once took apart a lamp inside her home in India to examine the intricacies of how a light switch worked. She can’t recall if an electrical shock resulted from the project, but the mission helped inspire her lifelong career as a scientist and award-winning physics and optical engineering educator at Rose-Hulman.

For more than 30 years, Kirtley has explored the chemical structures within elements by using high-power photon beams at the nation’s leading synchrotron radiation facilities. Along the way, these trips have provided unique undergraduate research projects for Rose-Hulman students and inspired special postgraduate opportunities. 

As Kirtley says, “One of my (laboratory X-ray absorption spectroscopy) proposal reviewers mentioned in his comments that this synchrotron work is not meant for undergraduates.”

Proving those science professionals wrong, Kirtley once took sophomore physics and mathematics student Tony Ragucci on a 72-hour exploration of the near-edge structure within asphaltenes by using the innovative X19A beamline at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source in the summer of 1994.

“It was exhilarating, exhausting, and taught me what professional experimental research was like,” said Ragucci of his first experience working at a national laboratory.

Kirtley and Ragucci spent the following school year analyzing the peaks in the x-ray absorption spectra for comparison with model features. They also collaborated with an industrial scientist to provide even more insight into experimental research while working under tight timelines.

The professor organized other research journeys with undergraduate students to the Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Advanced Light Source.

“These opportunities are rare, not easy to obtain, and I enjoy seeing the students’ eyes opening to the endless possibilities of physics,” states Kirtley, a distinguished Professor of Physics and Optical Engineering.   

That’s what happened to Ragucci. His undergraduate research experiences paved the way toward earning a master’s degree at Penn State and a doctorate at Ohio State University in condensed matter physics. Ragucci is now the senior director of sensor science and engineering at Leonardo DRS, Inc., developing infrared imagers for ground, airborne, and space applications.

“I think back fondly on my time working with Dr. Kirtley at Brookhaven and try to impart some of what I gleaned from that experience to young scientists and engineers in my organization today,” remarked the 1996 Rose-Hulman graduate who earned the Alumni Association’s Career Achievement Award in 2016. “Dr. Kirtley was patient, kind, and more than generous with her time explaining details of sample preparation, X-ray beamline operations, and data collection techniques.” 

Those personality elements continue to be shared in the Rose-Hulman classrooms, as Kirtley takes meticulous care while teaching physics classes and their lab sessions along with specialized courses in the fundamentals of nuclear physics and synchrotron radiation, theoretical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and biophysics. She also advises the campus’ Society of Women Engineers and the physics honor society student organizations. 

“Dr. Kirtley has a bondless enthusiasm for the scientific process and is always willing to try new ideas,” said Physics & Optical Engineering Department Head Galen Duree, PhD. “She looks for interesting things to put into her classes to enhance the learning experience and creates incredible opportunities for our students.”

That’s why, in 2009, Kirtley earned the Board of Trustees’ Outstanding Scholar Award, honoring faculty who demonstrate a commitment to excellence in creative scholarly activities. She was the first Rose-Hulman professor to implement hands-on experiences in the physics laboratory to accentuate student learning – a practice that’s now used in most academic departments on campus. Kirtley also was the institute’s first female faculty member promoted from assistant professor to full professor, with tenure status.

Kirtley was a finalist for Indiana’s Women & Hi Tech organization’s Leading Light Award, recognizing women of achievement in STEM for making great innovations in their industries, and was a nominee for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education’s Professor the Year Award, for implementing the studio lab techniques and other innovative educational technologies into the classroom.

“I had a headstrong love of physics and have always wanted to share that love with others,” said Kirtley, who earned a doctorate in physics at the University of Kentucky after a bachelor’s degree in the field at nearby Berea College. “I want to use technology to encourage students, especially women, to go into physics and other science fields. There should be no barriers to their success. The way I see it, if you have the interest, you should pursue it regardless of whatever anyone says.”