Exemplifying SPS: Dr. Alina Gearba-Sell Named 2019 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

Exemplifying SPS: Dr. Alina Gearba-Sell Named 2019 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor


Kendra Redmond, Editor

The SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor Award is the most prestigious award given by SPS, bestowed annually on the basis of the leadership, student leadership development, support, and encouragement the advisor has provided to their chapter.

For her leadership and guidance of the SPS chapter at the United States Air Force Academy and previously at the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Alina Gearba-Sell is the 2018–19 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor.

When she’s not working, Gearba-Sell enjoys hiking in the Rocky Mountains.As a new faculty member at the University of Southern Mississippi, Alina Gearba-Sell was assigned the role of SPS advisor. Her first response: What is SPS?

Gearba-Sell had never heard of SPS, having completed her education at the Polytechnic University of Bucharest in Romania, but she tackled the question with the curiosity and enthusiasm of a physicist. Now an advisor for more than 15 years, she has not only been sharing the answer with students but helping to shape it as Zone 10 councilor and currently as president of SPS.

At her current institution, the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado, Gearba-Sell has cultivated an SPS chapter where students are comfortable, supported, and equipped to reach the next level of professionalism and skill. “I found my first home at USAFA in the physics department,” wrote the student who nominated Gearba-Sell for the Outstanding Chapter Advisor Award. “Dr. Gearba-Sell’s leadership has helped to foster a familial, positive environment that our members have come to love and expect from one another.”

When she arrived at USAFA five years ago, the physics department had an SPS chapter whose primary focus was local outreach. Under Gearba-Sell’s leadership, the chapter expanded their activity by establishing a Sigma Pi Sigma chapter, applying for and receiving four awards from SPS National, publishing papers in science journals, hosting a zone meeting, and attending conferences such as the Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Congress and the American Physical Society (APS) Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. The group has earned the “Outstanding SPS Chapter” designation every year since her arrival.

One student describes the change this way: “Dr. Gearba-Sell has revitalized and transformed the chapter . . . She has helped our chapter establish a vision that prioritizes expanding outreach beyond the local area and creating meaningful professional connections between cadets and mentors, both fellow students and working physicists.”

Engaging students in this level of activity is challenging, admits Gearba-Sell, especially at a school where all of the students are busy with classes, military activities, and athletic requirements. But SPS offers students crucial opportunities to develop as physicists, she says. She sees her role as connecting students to these opportunities and providing support and guidance along the way. “Take advantage,” she advises students. “Join SPS National, APS, and the National Society of Black Physicists or National Society of Hispanic Physicists. Make as many contacts as possible. You never know where your next opportunity is going to come from.”

According to Gearba-Sell, one of the keys to being a great SPS advisor is getting to know the chapter and the needs and passions of individual students—then pointing them in the right direction. She takes this approach to teaching too. “There are so many different teaching methodologies now,” she says. “You have to see what resonates with your students, and you have to find what motivates them, engages them, and helps them succeed. When you tailor your teaching style to create meaningful learning experiences for your students, you foster a transparent, respectful, and trusting learning community.”

Students from the USAFA SPS chapter pose with Gearba-Sell during a meeting. Photos courtesy of Alina Gearba-Sell.

In addition to advising and teaching, Gearba-Sell has an active lasers and optics research lab and regularly works with students on experiments, seeks external funding, publishes papers, and gives presentations. She has received awards for research excellence, has won “Civilian of the Year,” and has accompanied students on a cultural immersion trip to Switzerland. As SPS president, Gearba-Sell is gearing up for the 2019 Physics Congress in Rhode Island, working on a proposal for officially recognizing SPS students who have made significant contributions to strengthening their chapters, and brainstorming ideas for the 2021 Centennial of Sigma Pi Sigma. “It’s busy, but I enjoy every minute of it,” she says.

So, what is SPS? In the fall 2018 issue of the SPS Observer, Gearba-Sell wrote, “SPS is an undergraduate’s first professional society and, in many cases, their first physics community. Through local impacts and national initiatives, SPS provides professional development, networking opportunities, and last, but not least, a sense of belonging.” For bringing this definition to life for so many students, Gearba-Sell will be recognized at the Winter Meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers as the 2019 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor.

Gearba-Sell while visiting CERN with students during a cultural immersion trip to Switzerland in 2017. Photo courtesy of Alina Gearba-Sell.

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