Wesleyan Physics Professor Still Passionate about Teaching in His 45th Year

In 1973, Dr. Joe Wiest was recruited to West Virginia Wesleyan to teach physics and increase the number of students who pursued the major. Forty-five years later, Dr. Wiest is still integrally involved in what has become one of the most popular academic programs at the private residential college.

This fall, Wesleyan has 80 physics majors. The success of the growth of the program reflects a lifetime of work for Wiest. He continues to approach teaching with the same enthusiasm and vigor that be brought to Wesleyan on his arrival to Buckhannon.

Dr. Wiest and his wife, Dr. Jeanie Wiest, now a retired pediatrician, were drawn to Wesleyan by the school’s academic reputation and its history of outstanding faculty along with the quaintness of Buckhannon. “Jay Rockefeller was the President in 1973 and Wesleyan was on the move,” noted Dr. Wiest. “I was teaching at a small school in Illinois that did not have a tradition or history. “When I saw the advertisement for a faculty position in physics at Wesleyan, I consulted with Jeannie and decided to apply. I was drawn to Wesleyan because it had a rich liberal arts tradition and a reputation for attracting great faculty. We drove to Buckhannon from Illinois on what were the curviest roads we had ever seen. When we arrived, we found passionate teachers who had dedicated their lives to the school such as William Hallam, Dr. Ernie Capstack, Dr. George Rossbach, Betty Weimer, Mike Berry, Dr. Alan Hamner ‘63, Dr. Paul Richter, Dr. Carl Colson, Dr. Homer Holloway, Dr. Ken Welliver, Dr. John Warner, Dr. Herb Coston, and Dr. Bobby Loftis. They were giants in their field.”

When classes began in the fall of 1973, Wesleyan had three physics majors and Dr. Wiest spent most of his time teaching support courses for students who were pursuing degrees in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and teacher education. “My charge was to develop a program,” he stated. “The administration, particularly Don and Sally Richardson and the mathematics and chemistry departments were strong advocates for engineering and they supported me in developing a curriculum that led to an engineering physics major.”

Dr. Wiest’s legacy at Wesleyan is far more than the increased number of physics majors. When he arrived, Wesleyan had excellent laboratory spaces for biology and chemistry, but physics was lagging behind significantly. Today, the school’s labs provide students with a significant number of opportunities to pursue exciting hands-on experiments. The department’s labs are a product of his creative design skills, connections in the field, bargain shopping and negotiating, and grant writing abilities. “Dr. Jerry Beasley, the Vice President for Development who later became a highly successful Concord University President, helped secure a $125,000 federal grant for lab equipment that was divided among physics, biology, and chemistry,” stated Dr. Wiest.

One of the unknown heroes of the program’s growth was Arnold Sayre, who served the College as the technical assistant to WVWC-FM, a 14,000 watt public radio station. When the College opted to drop the public radio station for financial reasons, Sayre moved to the physics department. Dr. Wiest actively participated in research conferences at the Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratory. He would return to campus and comb through journals and find plans for equipment, and then draw them out. “Arnold would machine out the lab equipment to perfection,” said Dr. Wiest. “It worked beautifully and we were able to usher in equipment that was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for a fraction of the cost.”

At the same time, he worked closely with the College’s Director of Development, Herb Sharp ’43, Hon. ‘96 to successfully secure grant funding to purchase additional lab equipment. Over his long career at Wesleyan, Dr. Wiest has helped secure more than a million dollars in grant-funding for lab equipment and summer research projects for the department’s students.
Dr. Wiest’s strategy to build the program included building a robust curriculum while still emphasizing the liberal arts, providing high-quality laboratory experiences, and encouraging students to pursue summer research opportunities. The College began attracting students and built its reputation through outstanding graduate placements. “Our students were gaining admission to outstanding engineering programs after leaving Wesleyan such as Georgia Tech, Illinois, North Carolina, Penn State, and Virginia Tech,” he noted.

In addition, Wesleyan had great success in placing students in some of the nation’s best medical physics programs. The school also established and has maintained a strong partnership with NASA. Dr. Wiest has been very active in a number of state and regional organizations. He was a long-time officer in the Appalachian Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

In the early 2000’s, the College added 3-2 engineering options with Virginia, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia. The Virginia and Virginia Tech programs led to a master’s degree in engineering.
The growth of the program is only a part of Dr. Wiest’s legacy at Wesleyan. In 1983, he and his wife together established the Summer Gifted Program, one that remains popular today. “Our son participated in a program at Duke one summer and on the way home, Jeannie and I realized that we could develop our own program at Wesleyan,” said Dr. Wiest. “We were fully aware of Johns Hopkins Talent Identification Program, but we knew there were kids in the West Virginia and surrounding states who would love to be challenged and who wanted to pursue science and mathematics. We are really proud of the legacy of the program. There are so many Summer Gifted graduates, several who are local, who are enjoying incredible career success.”

Dr. Wiest and his colleague, Dr. G. Albert Popson are permanent fixtures in Wesleyan’s Christopher Hall of Science. Both love the interaction with students and have a passion for teaching. Dr. Wiest has also eagerly participated in the College’s Freshman Seminar program since it began in the 1980s.

His class load always includes upper-level physics classes as well as support courses for other majors. He loves teaching every class. “My favorite class this year is “Returning to the Moon and onto Mars,” he shared. “I always find students who are pursuing other majors to be quite stimulating because they have so many varied interests.”

“Still, it is watching freshmen majors grow in their depth of knowledge and skills that excites the long-standing professor the most. And, he loves pursuing grants to ensure that students can take advantage of exciting partnerships and internships. Dr. Wiest is a member of the board of WV Space Grant Consortium, which has sponsored internships for many of Wesleyans students at NASA facilities and also awarded the College’s faculty with NASA grants and students with NASA fellowships.

This summer, he mentored research projects by four physics students. Bobbi Mitchell of Scott Depot, WV, used a tunable diode laser to measure the rotational motion of the chromium nucleus. Paige Stinson of Salem, VA, used the new Moglabs laser to measure the non-spherical shape of the nucleus of the two most common isotopes of rubidium. Ethan Randolph of Martinsburg, WV, designed a system using beta radiation as a long-term source of power for spacecraft venturing far from the Sun. Timothy Rono of Nairobi, Kenya, designed a solar-powered jet engine.

Dr. Popson, continues to be amazed that Dr. Wiest never forgets the name of a student or where they are working today. “Joe’s mind and memory are remarkable,” noted Dr. Popson. “He can deliver a lecture on any subject in physics at a moment’s notice and without a single note or PowerPoint slide. Graduates return each year eager to see him and to express their appreciation for his role in their career success. He is the same today as when I met him 29 years ago.”

Dr. Wiest has no plans of slowing down as he begins his 45th year. Much like the Wesleyan faculty giants who attracted him to the College, he continues to build upon his own legendary career.

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