This Month’s Q & A: February 2021

An old man with white hair sitting in a fabric covered chair, wearing a suit and signing a white piece of paper.

Stephen Addison, Ph.D.
Professor of Physics

Dean, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

University of Central Arkansas

ALMOST A YEAR ago, Steve Addison wrote the very first COVID-related Guest Column that this newsletter published, about the UCA faculty having to switch to total remote learning over a single weekend. Now that the vaccine is slowly making the rounds, we decided to check in with Dr. Addison to see how the forced experiment of the past year looks today. The good news is, he actually spoke the words, “light at the end of the tunnel.”


For the record, tell me, again, how you made your way from Wales to UCA.

In my final year of my bachelor’s degree in physics, I was at University College Cardiff in Cardiff, Wales, and there was a physics professor visiting from the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was there as a Fulbright scholar, and of course he got to know some of the faculty and students, including me.

He was actually working in research in biomedical engineering, and in the course of his research at Cardiff, he decided he wasn’t going to return to the Naval Academy. Instead, he’d been recruited by Ole Miss to help develop a program to make it the world center of research in physical acoustics. That’s the science of sound, but emphasizing its physical effects and measurements and things like that.

So around the time I received my degree, he said to me, “Well, I’m going to Mississippi. I don’t actually know anybody there and you don’t either, so why don’t you come with me?” So I said I would think about it. It helped that it had rained every day for six weeks when he asked me.

When I got my degree results, I talked with him again. One week later I received an application form from Ole Miss in the mail, a letter of acceptance, an application for an assistantship, and a letter of offer for the assistantship.

So that’s how I got over here. I was in Oxford for about six years working on research in underwater acoustics—basically how sound travels to the ocean floor and comes back out. It’s really important for understanding the acoustics related to submarines. And it’s funny—at Ole Miss I worked in the A.B. Lewis Physics Building, and when I came to UCA, I moved into the B.A. Lewis Science Center.

What year did you come to UCA?

It was 1984. This is my 37th year as a faculty member.

You think you’re going to stay?

I think so.

Well, good. And I wanted to follow up with you from last March. How are things going at UCA?

That transition worked out really well. We had a successful semester. Unlike many universities, we didn’t change our grading system to just pass/fail. We did give students some additional time to withdraw from courses, but we maintained our grading standards.

And that turns out to be really useful because I just nominated one of our students for a Goldwater scholarship. I’m the official nominator for UCA, and one of the things I had to do was to explain that this student’s grades for last year were as valid as grades for the other years. Maintaining our grading system worked out well for that student I nominated.

So we made it through the spring semester, and then we did summer entirely online. I didn’t set foot in the building more than once a week between March and June. And, actually, our summer enrollments were up over the previous summer.

Really? Do you think it was because it was online?

Probably. But we made it through. And while we were doing that, we made plans for how to handle the return to some face-to-face classes for the fall of 2020.

Last fall we opened up with most classes being hybrid in some way. For instance, in our chemistry classes we realized that we needed to get as many hands-on opportunities as possible, so our chemistry labs were face-to-face sessions and the general class meetings were online.

So a lot of our classes would have part of the class in person and the rest online. Students who only wanted online classes could sign up for an entirely online schedule, and students who wanted face-to-face could find a largely face-to-face schedule. We just had to pick and choose the classes.

The current semester we probably have a few more face-to-face classes than we did in the fall, partly because some faculty decided, “Well, we weren’t really getting any infections based on classes, so perhaps it’s safe to go with one of these reduced-size classes.”

I wanted to ask about the faculty. Last year you told me many of them were nervous, because they weren’t used to teaching remotely. Have they become used to it?

I think this pandemic has changed our programs forever, particularly because we’ve learned something we didn’t know before—that some things are actually better taught online.

For instance, I was teaching electronics in the spring and one of the things I use there is a circuit simulator where students are learning to put together circuits. I used to teach that in class, but now I was forced to teach it online. And what I found, in fact, is that it was better for the students to be viewing my screen on my computer and seeing what I was doing than it was for me to be displaying it on the big display in the front of the classroom. It went better. And then when they were trying it, it was easy for them to share their screens to see how things were going.

So some things actually turned out to be better online. I would say that this experience has accelerated the college’s ability to offer an online program by five or 10 years, because now no one can say, “You can’t do that.” Now we know we can. And people have become comfortable with it.

But what about the fear factor? Aren’t students and faculty still afraid?

Well, sure. For instance, everybody comments on what a remarkable relief it is when you actually get the vaccine, because it gives you a light at the end of the tunnel. I had my first round three weeks ago tomorrow, and tomorrow I get the second round. Two weeks after that you reach peak immunity. It’s not that you’re going to stop being careful. You’re not going to go out and do all sorts of things that you haven’t been doing. It’s just that you realize, “If someone messes up, I’ve got some protection.”

It just gives you a feeling of security. I think the psychological problems from the virus and the lockdown itself are going to be less of a factor than fatigue from working the way we’ve had to work the past year. There are days when I spend six or eight or more hours on Zoom meetings. I think a lot of people are just really fatigued.

In an interview last month, Charles Morgan said that COVID is hard on innovation. I know you and Karl Schubert and others have been working on an innovative initiative to make data science available across the state. How’s that going?

You’re talking about the launch program called DART, which stands for Data Analytics that is Robust and Trusted. It’s funded by the National Science Foundation and is a five-year, $20-million-dollar grant, with some matching funds from the state.

It’s primarily intended to fund research infrastructure and development, but part of it is also education and workforce development. Karl and I are the co-leads of the education and workforce development part of the program. What we’re working toward is to ensure that any student from any part of the state can have a data science education available to them. This is important, because as colleges become more expensive, it helps many people if they can start close to home.

What we want is a system in which people can start anywhere and finish anywhere. So if a student does a certificate program, we don’t want him or her to have to go to a two-year program and do another full two years. We want the certificate to really be the first year and then the student can just get the second year to earn the associate’s degree.

What all this means, though, is that we need to have a common idea about what a data science program should look like. But at the same time, they can’t be identical everywhere because the flavor of a particular place depends on the people there teaching it. You can’t just take syllabi from somewhere else and just teach it. Well, you can, but that doesn’t leave a very good impression. Somebody who’s teaching somebody else’s class isn’t as invested in it.

How far along is this project?

We’re in the first year. We started last July 1st. So in terms of the grant, if everything returns to normal by the fall, we’ll be able to get back out to face-to-face meetings and hands-on training across the state. We’ve got partners at various schools, but thanks to COVID, we’ve never all been in the same room together. We’ve seen them on Zoom, but we haven’t actually met in person.

So yes, COVID does inhibit innovation. When you’ve got multiple people in a room, you can put together strategies, formulate ideas, bounce things around, and people will get ideas springing off each other. You can feed off the energy in a room. That doesn’t happen on these video conferences.

At UCA, cybersecurity is in your department. How concerned are you when you hear about other nations hacking into the United States’ systems?

First of all, we’ll be graduating our first cybersecurity students this year. And yes, the external threats are a big worry.

The fact is, computer networks were built for trusted users, mostly for communications in the sciences and mathematics. When I came to UCA, I wanted to run some particular programs, so they basically gave me the manual on our system and said, “Let us know if you have any problems.” At that time there wasn’t much security protocol. The assumption was that the use was for scientists. The business and accounting uses were just beginning.

So that’s one of our problems—that networks were initially devised for people who were trusted users. Another problem is, we have this system whereby you can reach any location through multiple routes. Every node can communicate with other nodes, allowing distributed attacks. It would be better for communications to come through a specific node or a small set of nodes rather than potentially coming by a lot of routes. It would be easier to shut down cyberattacks that way.

I became chair of physics at UCA in 2002, and at that time I sat down and figured out what I wanted to see happen in the college that would make the university prosper into the future. I made a list of things, and cybersecurity—or what we call cybersecurity today—was one of the things on that list.

It’s vitally important. Everybody needs to know about it. We have to develop a way to train attackers and defenders. Because unless you know how to attack systems, learning how to defend them is really tough. That’s why I pushed for a cyber range here on campus. Our cyber range runs hundreds of virtual machines and duplicates the entire Internet. Our students learn how traffic moves around the Internet, where weaknesses are, how to harness systems, how to use different tools. And the great thing is, we can inject viruses and launch attacks within the range without them getting out into the wild. It allows people to develop skills without putting the outside networks at risk.

We have reached the end of about a 1,000-year period during which sea power was the determining power in the affairs of nation states. Now we’re transitioning to where cyber power is the way you project force and protect your national interest. The difference is that with sea power, you could have some asymmetric threats that are small in the general scheme of things. We’ve seen some—Iranian gun boats damaging some major ships, but not really hindering overall operations. Asymmetrical threats in cyber power are a much bigger problem.

The reason we’ve enjoyed the last 70 years of relative peace is because of technological superiority and the ability to project force using the Navy. Now part of the reason for developing our cybersecurity systems is to raise the level of what it takes to buy into the game.

We have to build similar technological superiority in the cyber realm. The problem, though, is that our utilities and our power grid and our water systems are all running their own networks instead of having been assembled with national security in mind. Nobody ever thought they could cause major difficulties. So that’s why it’s important that we invest in cybersecurity, one of the domains of data science. Without developing these security systems, there’s not much point in developing the rest.