Highlander Highlights: Week of February 5, 2024

Every two weeks, Highlander Highlights shares with readers some of the extraordinary research and accomplishments happening on and off campus through the tireless work and curiosity of our students and faculty.

Prepping for Alaska

Next time you’re stressing over packing for a family vacation, think about Rhett Herman and the complicated minutiae the physics professor works through every even-number year to get his student researchers from the Radford University physics labs to the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in the frigorific conditions of Utqiaġvik, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States.

“People across campus ask, ‘Are you ready yet?’”

“No,” Herman replies.

“What do you have to do?”

“Invent a dozen new things,” the professor said, acting out the numerous conversations he’s had recently as he walks up a flight of stairs to his office in Reed Hall from a physics storage room a floor below.


Every two years, students enrolled in Herman’s Arctic Geophysics research courses fly from Raleigh, North Carolina, or Richmond, Virginia, or Washington, D.C., to Seattle, Washington – “We may stop in Deadhorse [Alaska],” Herman said – before moving onward west to Utqiagvik. There, they conduct research on the Arctic sea ice, building on work that Herman and his students began there in 2006, when the town of Utqiaġvik was known as Barrow.

It all begins in September with the Physics 324 course Herman teaches. That’s when students first draft their project proposals and put their ideas on display for a full class review. Once approved, they go to work developing their plans and “inventing and building tools that don’t exist,” the professor said. Most of the projects are based on collecting data with devices the students construct.

In January, the student researchers, now enrolled in the four-credit Physics 325 course, work to complete their projects by the Feb. 17, very-little-wiggle-room deadline, when every piece of equipment leaves Radford, bound for Alaska.

“They are working hard now. They are scrambling – we all are – because that’s the way science works,” Herman said, noting that many of his students dedicated time over the holiday break to hone their projects and build the necessary tools to complete the job. The tools must also hold up in the Arctic environment, where temperatures regularly dip below zero and feel much colder, with the wind chill plunging to a teeth-chattering 30-35 below 0 Fahrenheit.

Physics majors Michael Ziegenfus (left) and Bryce Pappas recently tested the waterproof seals of their designs at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center a little more than a week before their tools and projects are packed and shipped to Alaska ahead of their research expedition.

Joining Herman this year will be nine Radford students – eight physics majors and one from geology. Two students from Southwest Virginia Governor’s School, who are enrolled in the Physics 325 course, and a teacher from the school, Greg Riffe, will be part of the research team. One Radford student will stay in Alaska for the trip’s two-week duration. Some will go the first week and return to Radford, while a few others will call Utqiaġvik home for the second week.

In addition to assisting with projects, Herman manages logistics, which includes shipping the necessary equipment northwest. That will happen on Feb. 17. Students will be making final touches to the projects that Saturday morning, and then in the late afternoon, the professor will load into his minivan about 12 black and yellow heavy-duty boxes – filled with things like sensors, soldering irons and 13 well-insulated Arctic outfits – and drive more than three hours to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

“It’s a crazy, insane and exhilarating scramble!” Herman said.

At the airport, Alaska Airlines will fly the boxes to a cargo terminal in Utqiagivk. The supplies will land a few days later – Tuesday or Wednesday – and be taken to the lab to await the researchers’ arrival on Saturday. 

A little more than a week remains before “everything – EVERYTHING – we need,” Herman emphasized, “leaves here.”

Everyone is busy making final adjustments, spending hours in the lab, testing equipment in pools to make sure the equipment they built is waterproof.

“So many people think that science is taking a million-dollar piece of equipment that someone has manufactured to do the job. Who helped develop that piece of equipment?” the physics professor asked rhetorically. “This, the things our students are working on now, is where things get started.”

Falling in love with research

Rachel Bird ’23 (right) with Professor of Health and Human Performance David Salle.

Rachel Bird ’23 gained an ardent appreciation for research as an undergraduate student at Radford. All it took was working with a faculty member on a project that is vital to the importance of physical and mental health.

Bird joined Professor of Health and Human Performance Michael Moore to study a variety of issues related to brain trauma and concussions. The research duo delved into such questions as how likely a person is to have a second concussion after their first – “three to six times more,” said Bird – and how a history of concussions in athletes has been shown to have “a worsened effect on verbal memory and reaction time on day five after the injury compared to someone with no history of concussion.”

Bird and Moore also discovered in their research “that the younger a person is when they have their first concussion makes a big difference in cognition,” said Bird, who graduated from Radford in December 2023. “A concussion in early childhood correlates with worse global cognition, visual memory and motor visual scores.”

A guiding principle of the research was to inform individuals that concussions “should not be written off as harmless,” Bird noted, and “making sure head injuries are not overlooked.”

The researchers’ findings were published in the Virginia Journal, a biannual peer-reviewed publication by the Virginia Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (Virginia AHPERD). The student-faculty co-authored article, “Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries and their Chronic Neurocognitive and Physiological Effects on the Body,” can be found on page 2 in the fall 2023 edition of the journal.

“I found that working with Dr. Moore was immensely helpful not only for this research paper but also for helping me develop into a better student and researcher,” said Bird, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA in allied health sciences. “This was my first research project I had ever done, and I relied a lot on Dr. Moore’s expertise to help me pick a project that was interesting and relevant, find reputable sources and put what I had learned all together into a professional article.”

Bird, who grew up in Dublin, Virginia, also teamed with Professor of Health and Human Performance David Salle on projects in the biomechanics lab. She currently works as a rehabilitation technician at LewisGale Hospital in Pulaski, Virginia, and is in the process of applying to a physician assistant program in Richmond, Virginia.

Music therapy professor and students reflect to refine

By Sean Kotz, College of Visual and Performing Arts Communications Officer

How do you know you are getting better at something? How do you know where you need improvement? How do you find your baseline?

That’s a problem that students preparing for a career face every day, and one that Sekyung Jang has thought a lot about.

Jang is an associate professor and director of music therapy at Radford University. She saw that some of her students, while talented and devoted, did not have a good grasp of the way others perceived them or their level of musical mastery.

“Sometimes I see students who have poor self-awareness,” Jang explained. “They have no idea what they do in sessions, and sometimes they have no idea what I’m talking about when I give them feedback.” Read more.

They said it

Media Studies major and Super Bowl prognosticator Aiden O’Connor (left) interviews Highlanders hoopster Bryan Antoine after a recent game.

With the kickoff for Super Bowl LVIII swiftly approaching, we asked sophomore media studies major Aiden O’Connor to give his thoughts on the contest between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs. O’Connor, an aspiring sports broadcaster from Lynchburg, Virginia, who covers Highlanders athletics for The Tartan student newspaper, also tells us why Radford has been the perfect place to learn and grow into his chosen profession.

Which team will win the Super Bowl and why?

“I think the Niners will take the trophy. The Chiefs have one of the worst-run defenses in the NFL, and nobody runs the ball better than San Francisco, in my opinion. I don’t think karma gets the best of this team, and Taylor Swift’s magical run ends here.”

What are your Super Bowl viewing plans … where and with whom?

“I live in an apartment with four other roommates, so we are going to have a small Super Bowl party with all of our friends and just enjoy the game.”

Let’s pretend you’re a reporter covering Super Bowl media day. Who do you most want to interview and why? And what would be your first question?

“I would talk to Steve Spagnola; he is the defensive coordinator for the Chiefs. I would ask him what his plan is to stop the Niners’ run game. It’s tough to stop because if you send too many players to blitz, Niners quarterback Brock Purdy is going to eat them alive.”

You’re an aspiring sports broadcaster. What have you learned most so far at Radford that is pushing you toward success in the broadcast field?

“Almost everything I know so far can be attributed to the faculty and people here at Radford. From the Tartan staff and Professor [Bill] Kovarik to Mike Ashley ’83 and [adjunct faculty member] Mr. Jeremy Jennings, I am very grateful to be surrounded by the people I am, and I think the knowledge they will give me will take me very far in the industry.”

Feb 9, 2024
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761