Carnegie Mellon University
December 13, 2023

Ferguson Gifts Support Future of Physics at Carnegie Mellon

By Heidi Opdyke

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Physicists spend years planning projects on a grand scale such as with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at CERN'S Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Mellon College of Science Emeritus Physics Professor Thomas Ferguson took that idea one step further when he heard that Carnegie Mellon's Department of Physics had fewer endowed professorships than its peers. With his eyes on the future, he set up a life insurance policy that will one day endow a chair for a faculty member in experimental high-energy physics.

"As far as I know, I'm the only one to endow a chair like that," he said. "That was my way to help the department."

Since setting up the life insurance policy, Ferguson regularly gives to the CMU General Fund, which allows the university to respond nimbly to unforeseen challenges and new opportunities as they arise.

A recent conversation opened his eyes to another giving option: an ACS Legacy Scholarship.

The ACS Legacy Scholarship Program provides donors an opportunity to assist a student enrolled in a designated school or college, and the gift immediately benefits the student. Students and donors will often correspond through emails and letters as well as have the opportunity to meet.

Ferguson chose to support a four-year scholarship for a physics student, which first-year Marissa Parris received.

"It's a great way of having your donations targeted," he said. "This is a way you can really see donations going to someone and really helping them achieve their goals."

Parris, who is from New York City, said that she came to Carnegie Mellon because of its strong emphasis on science.

"I took my first physics class in eighth grade," she said. "Before that, my favorite subject was math. It was really interesting to me how physics combines math and science in real life."

Early into her Carnegie Mellon journey, she said she is grateful for the opportunities she has.

"In the next four years, I hope to solidify the area of physics where I want to focus, conduct research and pursue some of my hobbies like playing the piano," she said.

Ferguson joined Carnegie Mellon in 1985 after working as a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles. His research lies in experimental high-energy particle physics and in particular colliding beam accelerators.

"Cornell had built a new accelerator, and Carnegie Mellon joined the collaboration," Ferguson said. "I got to know faculty and students at the time, and when one of the CMU faculty members retired, I was offered a faculty position."

During his first semester in Pittsburgh, he taught physics for humanities majors. At the time he accepted the position, the chair told him to anticipate 20 to 25 students. Almost 150 students enrolled.

"It was challenging but fun. That was my introduction to teaching," he said. "I always appreciated and loved teaching students, and it was always an important part of what I did at CMU."

Ferguson taught a variety of courses including physics for science students to the physics of music. For his efforts, he was awarded the Mellon College of Science's Julius Ashkin Teaching Award in 1990 and the university's William H. and Frances S. Ryan Award for Meritorious Teaching in 1998.

"I always told my students right away that the odds of me teaching things you have to know in your future career is very small," he said. "We want to teach you how to learn new things and apply various tools like mathematics and programming because that is what you're going to have to do when you graduate."

A member of the CMS Collaboration, Ferguson served as co-head of one of the publication boards for the LHC experiment for eight years. He is still involved with CERN and continues to work with graduate students on data analysis and papers.

"Our experiment has been tremendously successful, we have over 1,200 publications during the last 11 years," he said.

Ferguson said that Carnegie Mellon has been a part of that success and will continue to contribute not just in the field of physics but in many of its areas of strength.

"I would tell my students that there are tremendous faculty. Where else could you have a university that has one of the best engineering colleges and one of the best drama schools," he said. "Carnegie Mellon is really an amazing place. I've always enjoyed it. I've tried to do my share to improve it."

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