What's the Score

M. Susan Barger
December 01, 1995

It has been 18 years since I arrived at Penn State for the fall 1977 semester. It had never been my intention to get a Ph.D., yet there I was, somewhat embarrassed, poised to begin a very unconventional path towards a doctorate. I had come to join the newly formed Interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities.

Previously, I had completed a B.A. in studio art and French at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, CA, and an M.S. in teaching from Rochester Institute of Technology's School for American Craftsmen. At RIT, I had also completed two years of graduate work in photographic science and most of an undergraduate science degree. What brought me to Penn State was the driving curiosity to investigate how photographs age and change over time, in order to make strategies for preserving them.

My progress through Penn State was not always smooth, but in the end it was extremely productive and transforming. By chance I landed in the Materials Research Laboratory (now the International MRL) and found a new field of study, materials science. It was just the right scientific viewpoint for the task I had set myself. For my dissertation, I tackled the daguerreotype process, showing how the size and distribution of silver particles create the image. Readers may remember an article about my project in the September 1984 Research/Penn State.

After I left Penn State, I was the first Mellon Fellow in Preservation Science at the Library of Congress, became a research professor in the department of materials science and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and am now an adjunct professor in the department of earth and planetary sciences at the University of New Mexico. I grew up in the Southwest, and since my return I have done interesting research on the preservation of adobe buildings. I also consult for museums and cultural institutions in the United States, Europe, and Mexico.

Throughout these years, my main connection with my graduate school experience has been through the pages of Research/Penn State. I have always been taken aback by people who, knowing I am a Penn State alumna, ask me about the football team. As a graduate student, I only paid attention to the football schedule to know when I could get to my lab (just down the hill from Beaver Stadium) and when I couldn't. Similarly, the Penn State Alumni Association never appealed to me because it did not seem to be addressed to former graduate students. For these reasons, I welcomed the proposal to help found the Research and Graduate School Alumni Interest Group and to contribute my thoughts here on what relationship a graduate school should maintain with its graduates.

When my students go off to graduate school, I remind them that a graduate degree is not a ticket to getting a job, although it might help in the long run. Graduate school is a great luxury and a great adventure. It is the opportunity to work concentratedly on a research problem in a way that is usually not possible before or afterwards. In exchange for earning little money, a graduate student has the freedom to work on something in which he or she has a genuine interest, and to establish a rapport with a mentor who can help him or her navigate life.

How can an Alumni Interest Group improve upon this experience? First, it can provide a way to maintain or regain contact with our graduate school peers. Often it is this network that allows us to change jobs in later years, or to place one of our own students for graduate training or a job. An alumni network could also help mentors of current Penn State graduate students to place them in postdocs, internships, and jobs.

Second, the Alumni Interest Group can enhance Penn State's stature as a major research and graduate institution. It is always discomfiting to think that the main reason a university maintains contact with its graduates is for the potential money they might give. While I do think graduates should be encouraged to donate, there are additional contributions we can make. Graduates can provide information to the University about needs and trends in various industries, and so help to shape future curricula. If kept well informed - through Research/Penn State - of the University's progress in research and graduate education they can, merely by spreading the word, strengthen Penn State's reputation as more than just a good football school.

I hope you will join me in this effort and become a member of the Research and Graduate School Alumni Interest Group.

M. Susan Barger, Ph.D., is one of seven directors of the Research and Graduate School Alumni Interest Group. Her colleagues are: Waddell Biggart, Ph.D.; K. David Boyer, M.S.; Paul Hand, Ph.D.; James Holway, M.A.; Jack Udell, M.B.A.; and Bill Burgess, M.B.A. For more information, contact Suzette Marquette Poremba, 320 Kern, University Park, PA 16802; phone 814-863-8117; e-mail at scp4@psu.edu.

Last Updated June 23, 2015