Practically Perfect, Prof.

HU instructor wins recognition

On Monday nights, Cynthia Keppel is allowed to work late. She often stays at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility until midnight, exploring the basic structure of atoms and working on medical cameras designed to better diagnose cancer.

The rest of the week, Keppel spends her early evening hours at home with her family. That's the deal that the busy professor -- termed "a whirlwind" by one colleague -- has hammered out with her sons, Barry, 13, and Joel, 6.

"They're tough negotiators," laughed Keppel, an assistant physics professor at Hampton University and a staff scientist at Jefferson Lab. "Basically, they figured that Monday is a wash as a day anyway, and also, generally none of their games are that day."

This year, Keppel's many research and teaching projects have won her an Outstanding Faculty Award, the highest honor for teachers at Virginia's colleges and universities. Keppel is one of 11 recipients, out of 72 nominations. She's the only winner this year from a private university.

At 37, Keppel is one of the youngest winners of the award, if not the youngest, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. She's the second HU professor and just the fourth assistant professor to win in the program's 14-year history.

SCHEV, the state's coordinating body for higher education, plays an advisory role to private colleges. The council includes private colleges in its faculty awards because the schools play an important part in the education system, said spokesman Paul Nardo.

Keppel plays an important role in many different groups. Two of her favorite jobs are serving as advisor for HU's chapter of the Society of Physics Students, or SPS, and developing medical equipment at Jefferson Lab.

HU students in SPS, a national organization, created a physics demonstration program aimed at making science accessible to people of all ages. To teach the concepts of pressure and force, for example, students lie down on a bed of nails without getting hurt. At least once a month, the group travels to schools and museums across the country.

"It gives people a feeling that they can do physics," Keppel said. "Too often, science is just viewed as being math, math and more math."

Keppel's classes are almost as fun, said Tege Marques, an HU junior who is the student coordinator for the SPS chapter. Recently, Keppel melted marshmallows in a microwave oven as part of a class on measuring the speed of light and the frequency of different light waves.

"Anyone can stand at the board and write equations, but she does a lot more," Marques said. "She uses great examples to teach you all the concepts. She always has this incredible energy. I stuck with physics mainly because of her."

At the Jefferson Lab, a lot of Keppel's energy goes toward building nuclear imaging cameras. One of the cameras, which aims to find breast cancer without a biopsy -- even tumors smaller than a dime -- is in clinical trials at the Riverside Diagnostic and Breast Imaging Center in Newport News. Doctors hope to test 100 women in the next year.

Ariano Munden, an HU junior, works on that project with Keppel. "It's good, because it's actual applied physics, not just theoretical," Munden said.

As for Keppel, he said, "she doesn't just care about your school life -- it's your personal life, too. She wants to know what you want to do with your life and what work makes you happy."

Keppel never liked the stand-up-and-lecture style of teaching. After graduating from a big high school, she enrolled at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. The small, liberal arts college didn't have grades or large lecture classes. All of the exams were oral.

"You couldn't hide, and you really had to learn how to think," Keppel said.

Keppel isn't one of those science people who always knew she wanted to be a scientist. In fact, she didn't decide she loved physics until she was a sophomore in college. She liked the mystery of not being able to explain everything -- but at the same time, being able to understand a lot more about how the world works.

At HU, Keppel has helped develop a graduate-level curriculum in elementary particle physics and advanced electronics and instrumentation. She hopes she can be a role model for women going into physics, and teaching at HU also means she's helping increase minority participation in the sciences.

Keppel escapes the pressures of her jobs by going to ballroom-dancing classes or on camping trips along the Appalachian Trail. But she really doesn't mind being so busy -- even on Monday nights.

"OK, so sometimes I don't get a lot of sleep," she said, "but I love what I'm doing."