Far in the depths of the physics section of the science building, where my freshman self would never dare venture to, is the office of Dr. William Sawyer.
Dr. Sawyer, or “Doc,” as he prefers his students call him, is one of the sweetest professors I have had in my three years at West Chester University, and if that isn’t enough, he also bears an uncanny resemblance (in my opinion) to William Shatner.
Celebrity likenesses aside, I recently got the chance to meet with my Intro. to Physics professor to find out more about his career as both an educator and a scientist.
Doc has been teaching at the university for four years now, and his road back to academia has had its fair share of detours.
After finishing graduate school, Sawyer taught for nine years at Elmhurst College in Ill. He conducted research with a group of his students while there and currently has pictures of the project proudly mounted on the wall in his office.
After turning down an administrative position with the college (due in part to the fact that he wouldn’t be able to teach as much as he was at that time), Dr. Sawyer had to assess his options. He had received an offer from another university, but it wasn’t in his field of expertise.
Dr. Sawyer also got an offer from the German manufacturing company Zeiss, which he eventually accepted. While at Zeiss, Sawyer developed a very successful product for the company with the help of one of his research students (later-turned business partner) from Elmhurst.
The two men later started their own company, which they eventually sold to buy another struggling business in hopes of making it successful.
After selling the second company, Dr. Sawyer opted to try out an early retirement, which didn’t pan out for two reasons.
“I was bored silly within six weeks,” said Dr. Sawyer of his decision to leave the workforce.
The other reason that his retirement plan didn’t work out as he imagined was the aftermath of 9/11. After those tragic events transpired, Dr. Sawyer decided to go into the field of risk assessment and security systems.
He even spent time in Washington D.C. working with the military, where he met his future business partners and started a risk assessment company of his own.
After all of this time in the business world, Dr. Sawyer still knew that he wanted to get back to teaching, but he had some apprehensions.
“I’d been away too long and I hadn’t done any academic research for 30 years,” he said.
But then, as if from a scene in the movies, Dr. Sawyer met Gary Pascuzzo, a current professor at WCU. Pascuzzo got him in touch with the Physics Department chair, Dr. Anthony Nicastro. After some emailing back and forth, Dr. Sawyer and Nicastro finally met up and talked about the possibility of a job for Dr. Sawyer teaching at WCU. Well, the offer was made, accepted, and carved in stone with the signing of a contract.
Dr. Sawyer left the business world behind him and has since never looked back.
It may have taken a while for him to re-enter the world of academia, but for Sawyer, it was worth the wait.
“I’m [teaching again] because I absolutely want to be, and I love doing what I’m doing,” he said.
There’s something to be said about professors who use their real-life experiences to shape their curriculum, and that’s just what Dr. Sawyer does.
He takes his knowledge and past experiences (not only in education but in business as well) and then uses that to shape what he teaches his introductory physics classes on.
Throughout the semester in his class, I have learned about the basics of physics, obviously, but I’ve also gained a better understanding of green energy, the science behind terrorism, and, perhaps most important, how to solve problems using the most basic information provided.
If Doc has strived to leave his students with any one piece of information, it’s “Think Cow.”
The meaning behind this seemingly meaningless phrase (and what I’ve come to think of as Doc’s slogan), is that we should keep it simple when faced with a dilemma. Any problem can be solved with a fair amount of determination and the knowledge that we must break the issue down into the most understandable parts to get started. The phrase itself comes from a textbook that was recommended reading for the class, but Doc has certainly taken it and made it his own.
Perhaps the thing that Dr. Sawyer was most proud to tell me was that a group of his undergraduate students here at WCU recently presented at a national conference and did very well.
To think that I never would have really understood the reasons behind Doc’s teaching methods and philosophies if I hadn’t garnered the courage to ask him for an interview makes me a little sad, if I’m being completely honest. Toward the end of our conversation, Doc noted that most of the time throughout the semester, students only come to his office if they are worried about a particular test or their final grade.
To have a sincere conversation about what Dr. Sawyer does and why he does it was not only a pleasant surprise, but also a learning experience, for the both of us I hope.
Besides the aforementioned topics I’ve learned throughout the year in Doc’s class, there’s no doubt that I’m going to walk away from Intro. to Physics with a better appreciation for the overall field of science.
Although after this semester comes to a close I will have finished up my two required science courses, I can honestly proclaim that I will no longer fear the building as a whole, especially the physics hallway.
Rachel Alfiero is a third-year student majoring in communication studies with a minor in Latin American studies. She can be reached at RA806657@wcupa.edu. Her Twitter is @alfieroperson.