Eugene Bickers

Eugene Bickers

September 1, 2004

“Firewalker” professor shares values of learning
By Joanna Wu
Published in Daily Trojan, Thursday, September 2, 2004
Media Credit: Matt Seuferer | Daily Trojan

Eugene Bickers opened this year’s “What Matters to Me and Why” series Wednesday.

It Matters. Eugene Bickers, chair of the department of physics and astronomy, spoke to a group of nearly 100 students and faculty at Ground Zero Coffeehouse Wednesday at noon.

Eugene Bickers, chair of the department of physics and astronomy, opened this year’s “What Matters to Me and Why” speaker series at noon Wednesday, telling students it didn’t matter how many university degrees a student obtained.

“I think we all have the same faults and we all have the same good points underneath,” he said. “I don’t think an education changes some fundamental parts of us.”

Bickers spoke to a crowd of nearly 100 students and faculty at Ground Zero Coffeehouse.

“I’ve spoken in front of a lot of different audiences-large audiences- but usually on technical subjects, and I find this assignment particularly intimidating,” Bickers said.

The monthly talk and discussion series, sponsored by the Office of Religious Life on the first Wednesday of every month, is in its fourth year. The series features speakers from USC faculty and administration, encouraging presenters to talk about the choices they have made, difficulties they have had and what matters to them.

“We’re concerned about meaning and about making sense of life,” said Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of the Office of Religious Life.

Bickers talked about his blue-collar background and how much he values his family, his upbringing and his education.

“My family did not come from an advantaged background, from an academic background, but a working- class background,” Bickers said.

Bickers is the first of his immediate family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in Physics at Cornell University.

Growing up in the South, he described how he lived five minutes from Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson.

“I’m from the South and everyone where I grew up was either a Baptist or a Methodist; that was diversity,” Bickers said.

Every Sunday his family went to church, he said.

Bickers said he values hard work and intellectual achievement but detests intellectual snobbery.

He also talked about his love for math.

“(It is) rational, logical, and together, we can come to some conclusion and I think there are things about the subject that transcend any background we come from,” he said.

Bickers has been a part of the faculty at USC for 16 years. He was given the name “Professor Firewalker” because of his heat transfer demonstration in Physics 100 and Physics 161. He demonstrates heat transfer by walking across hot coals.

“In my professional life, teaching is something that I take a tremendous pleasure in,” he said. “I really enjoy working with students.”

He is interested in improving student learning, especially in introductory courses and has explored peer instruction and studio learning.

“I hope that the classes that I teach – even if they’re very difficult classes – I hope that they’re enjoyable at some level,” he said.

The Steering Committee, composed of 12 undergraduates from a variety of majors, selected Bickers to speak.

Tanaz Farzan, a member of the committee and former physics student of Bickers nominated him.

“Dr. Bickers represents excellence at USC and it only takes a short time in knowing him to see that for yourself,” Farzan said.

Natalie Hayes, an undecided sophomore, said she enjoyed the program.

“I’ve never had him as a teacher and I think I would want to take a class from him if I studied physics,” she said.

W. Joe DeMiero, president of Student Senate and a member of the Steering Committee, said the program is valuable to students.

“Each one of these programs is so vastly different and it causes you to kind of question and ask yourself what your values are,” he said.

Laemmle said that they will be starting the program at the Health Sciences campus, but will probably only have two speakers every semester.

The original idea came from a similar event put on by Princeton University, she said.