Physics Professor George Spagna
-story by Kaitlyn Sewell '15
Randolph-Macon College Physics Professor George
Spagna exemplifies commitment through his dedication to students, faculty, and the
surrounding town of Ashland. Now in his 28th year of teaching, he testifies to the
exceptional amount of successful physics graduates, the unique research collaboration
between students and professors, and the appealing opportunities R-MC offers.
Science, Faith, and Service
Spagna has taught a large variety of courses, including astronomy, astrophysics,
an honors course, and two variations of a First-Year Experience (FYE)
course, In God’s Good Time. “The course looked at scientific, cultural, and theological
aspects of what time is,” Spagna explains. “Students had unique opportunities during
the class, including the creation of a religion, and the construction of a clock.”
In addition to his work in the
Copley Science Center, Spagna has extended himself beyond campus and throughout
the community. “I am in my third term on the Ashland Town Council, and in my second
term as vice mayor,” Spagna shares. “I’ve seen R-MC and Ashland grow together, and
the campus brings a lot of cultural life to the town.” Furthermore, Spagna serves
as a member of the Commission on Ministry for the Episcopalian Church, and is the
treasurer of Hanover Interfaith Free Clinics, a faith-based, non-profit healing
ministry that provides free medical and dental health care to the residents of Hanover
and the surrounding area.
Spagna’s history of giving doesn’t stop there. In 2000, he donated one of his kidneys
to his colleague and dear friend Biology Professor Russell Shea, whose passing in
2008 was a tremendous devastation to the community. Shea’s daughter, Ellie Shea
’12, remembers the lack of hesitation in Spagna’s offer.
“Dad talked about how thankful he was for having Dr. Spagna in his life, and how
he would never be able to repay him for giving him his life back,” Shea says. “His
gift gave my family eight more years with my dad that we otherwise would not have
had. R-MC is made up of people that want to be invested in their community on a
personal level while positively affecting the lives of others, and Dr. Spagna is
a shining example of that. My family and I will always be close to the Spagna family.”
Lisa Borum ’13
is among R-MC’s most noteworthy physics majors. She believes that her positive experience
at R-MC was greatly influenced by Spagna. “What makes Dr. Spagna unique is his intelligence
and willingness to spend one-on-one time with his students,” Borum shares. “My senior
research project with Dr. Spagna involved the construction of a metric to describe
space in a universe containing a cosmic string—a one-dimensional singularity that
theoretically exists, and has a gravitational effect similar to that of a black
hole. We created models of particle trajectories produced by the metric we made,
and I got to present my findings at a conference.”
In addition to collaborating on extensive research with Borum, Spagna also mentored
her. “Dr. Spagna never turned me away from his office,” Borum remembers. An honorable
previous member of the military, Borum found Spagna very supportive. “Whether I
needed help with homework, wanted to discuss some deep philosophical issue, or was
just having a bad day, Dr. Spagna was there to talk. I can’t count the times he
has given me good advice.” Borum currently works as a software developmental engineer
for URS Corporation, and looks forward to graduate school in her future.
Another prominent alumna of the Physics Department is Katherine Rueff ’07,
who considers Spagna a key figure in her life at R-MC and in her science career.
A Ph.D. candidate in the Physics Department at the University of Notre Dame, Rueff
took many of Spagna’s courses and was his research advisee.
“I worked with Dr. Spagna in the Keeble Observatory
and learned the majority of my telescope fundamentals from his guidance,” Rueff
shares. “He is an entertaining and compassionate professor, but also expects the
best from his students. When I felt overwhelmed, he’d ask, ‘How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time!’ Dr. Spagna embodies what a professor truly should be.”
Scott Lansdale ’02 values the critical thinking skills he earned
through Spagna. “Dr. Spagna taught us to understand what an answer should look like
before the problem is begun,” Lansdale recalls. “He always encouraged us to find
Lansdale initiated construction for the Center of the Universe Radio Telescope (CURT)
during a one-semester research course at R-MC that expanded into a Schapiro Undergraduate
Research Fellowship (SURF) project, and later into
a two-semester senior project. He is currently a computer engineer.
To Yellow Jackets, Spagna stresses the importance of getting the most out of college.
“Students should recognize the opportunities they have here and appreciate them,”
he advises. “R-MC offers unique, personalized attention from faculty.”
In his spare time, Spagna enjoys swimming and binge-reading science fiction novels
over the summer. He earned his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute. He joined the faculty in 1986.