Alumni Friars Teaching in Academia

It’s “cool” to be smart at Fenwick, and these Ph.D. scholars have taken their intellectual talents to a higher level as university professors.

By Mark Vruno

Fenwick instructors have honed developing minds of highly intelligent people over thecourse of 90 school years. From physics and politics to English and French, some of those students took their passions for learning to the next level by pursuing research, education and scholarship at some of the world’s most prestigious private and public universities.

Holder Hall at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, where two Fenwick alumni teach.

At Princeton, the Ivy League research school with New Jersey roots dating back to 1746, two Fenwick alumni-turned-professors can be found teaching on campus: Thomas Duffy ’78 (geophysics) and John Mulvey ’64 (operations research/financial engineering). In Boston, Professor William Mayer ’74 has been a political-science guru at Northeastern University (established in 1898) for the past 28 years. After Fenwick, Mayer attended Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from which he also earned a Ph.D. (in 1989). “I don’t like to move,” he dead-pans, “plus my wife loves the New England area.”

On the West Coast, one of Prof. Duffy’s classmates, Larry Cahill ’78, is a neuroscientist and professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California at Irvine. And in the Midwest, Robert Lysak ’72 is professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis – Saint Paul.

Additionally, two members of the Class of 1961 were college professors and are now retired: Terrence Doody (English Literature) at Rice University in Houston and Thomas Kavanagh (French), most recently at Yale University in Connecticut. Another Professor Emeritus isJohn Wendt ’69, who taught Ethics and Business Law at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) for 30 years. (Read more about them.) Spread out geographically across the United States, Fenwick is the common denominator for these seven Ph.D.’s and college professors. Read on for a glimpse at their impressive works.

A Computing Love Affair

John Mulvey in 1964.

John Mulvey is a professor within Princeton’s Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE) Department, which he founded. He also is a founding member of the interdisciplinary Bendheim Center for Finance as well as the Statistics and Machine Learning Center at the university. Mulvey is captivated by the ongoing revolution in information and machine-learning. The ORFE Department focuses on the foundations of data science, probabilistic modeling and optimal decision-making under uncertainty. “Our world is a very uncertain place,” he stresses.

The work Mulvey does has applications throughout the service sector, including in communications, economics/finance, energy/the environment, health-care management, physical and biological sciences, and transportation. In the past, he has worked with aerospace/defense-technology firm TRW (now part of Northrop Grumman) to help solve military problems, including developing strategic models for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (U.S. Department of Defense).

“Today we work with major firms, including some of the largest investors in the world, which are interested in integrating their risk,” Mulvey explains. For example, “hedge funds and private-equity firms need to manage their portfolios over time to protect themselves. When the crash occurred in 2008, people thought they were diversified. The banking and finance world refers to systemic risk as contagion,” which is the spread of market changes or disturbances from one regional market to others.

Mulvey also analyzes data for supply-chain management, which he calls a “transformative industry. Production and distribution models were separate before,” he points out, “but we’ve brought it all together now. Amazon has built its whole system based on this commerce model.”

Prof. Mulvey at Princeton.

Machines running algorithms and computer optimization became passions for him at a relatively young age. At Fenwick, Mr. Edward Ludwig helped mathematics to make sense for young John. “He was an amazing math teacher,” Mulvey says of Ludwig. “His class was fantastic. I didn’t necessarily want to be an engineer but felt I could go into a technical area.

“In the 1960s we were at the cusp of computing, and the University of Illinois had one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers at the time,” recalls Mulvey, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago and attended the old St. Catherine of Siena Parish. “That’s why I wanted to go there, and I fell in love with computing.”

The ILLIAC IV supercomputer is what drew Mulvey to the University of Illinois in the mid-1960s.

He next ventured west to study business administration at the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California (Cal), then earned a second master’s degree in management science in ’72 from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Three years later Mulvey completed his Ph.D. at UCLA’s Graduate School of Management. His dissertation topic, “Special Structures in Large Scale Network Models and Associated Applications,” won the 1976 American Institute of Decision Sciences Doctoral Dissertation Competition.

Mulvey taught for three years at the Harvard Business School and, 41 years ago, came to Princeton “to have an impact at a smaller school,” he says. (Princeton has some 5,200 under-grads.) “I came here to grow the basic, general engineering program for undergraduates.” The 72-year-old thoroughly enjoys his work: “If you had a job like mine, you wouldn’t want to retire.”

Extreme Conditions

Tom Duffy in 1978.

Across campus, Tom Duffy is Director of Princeton’s High-Pressure Mineral Physics & Material Science Laboratory and Associate Chair of the Geosciences Department. His research focuses on understanding the large-scale physical and chemical behavior of the Earth and other planets through experimental study of geological materials under extreme conditions. He and his colleagues employ high-tech tools, such as laser-heated diamond anvil cells and optical spectroscopy along with X-rays, to explore crystal structures, phase relations, elasticity and deformation behavior in a range of materials at ultra-high pressure and temperature conditions.

“We study the behavior of materials under extreme conditions – deep inside the Earth, for example, or under meteorite impact,” Prof. Duffy explains. “We examine how structures and chemistries change, then try to determine what these changes might mean for Earth and for other planets, including recently discovered planets orbiting other stars.” One big question with which he and his research associates grapple: How are these newly discovered planets fundamentally different from Earth?

Prof. Duffy (third from left) poses with students in his research group. (Photo courtesy of Princeton University.)

The youngest of six children from Riverside, IL (St. Mary’s), Duffy describes his career pathway as “roundabout.” He entered Boston College as a physics major. “I then was exposed to real- world applications through a geology course I took as a senior, then came home and worked in a food distribution warehouse,” Duffy says. After about one year he returned to school for his master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) in a new program that blended his interests in physics and geology. After six years at California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in Pasadena, earning a Ph.D., he returned home to pursue a research opportunity at the University of Chicago. In 1997 Duffy landed at Princeton and has never looked back.

Duffy travels “home” to Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, IL, about six times per year to conduct research. He credits Fenwick with developing his self-confidence as a young man who wasn’t necessarily science oriented. Mr. Andrew Arellano was a newer teacher back then, and Duffy got involved in speech and debate. “At tournaments we’d go up against bright, hard-working kids from other schools. You wouldn’t think that possessing strong writing and speaking skills are important in science, but they are. I have to write well and explain complex concepts.

History Teacher Mr. Louis “Jack” Spitznagel (shown in 1974) passed away in late 2001.

“I received a broad-based education at Fenwick — history, literature, math, art,” he continues. He remembers other “great teachers” who were dedicated to their craft: Fr. McGrath for math, Mr. Guerin for physics and Mr. Polka for biology. The late “Mr. Spitznagel was really tough,” Duffy recalls, “but I learned a lot” in his history class.

Sex Differences in the Brain

In high school in the mid-1970s, Larry Cahill was a self-described “little, smart guy with glasses” who everyone assumed would grow up to be a physician. “I rode in from Elmhurst with my brothers,” he recalls of his 12-mile daily commute eastward to Oak Park. Cahill’s father and uncle also attended Fenwick.

Larry Cahill in 1978.

“To show you what a ‘geek’ I was, I took Latin partly to get an advantage regarding medical terminology,” Prof. Cahill admits. Mrs. Mary Ann Spina was his Latin teacher. “She made learning Latin enjoyable,” he says. “As a matter of fact, some Fenwick friends and I started a philosophical group called ‘In Vino Veritas,’ which even had business cards (thanks to my Dad, a printer). I suppose the organization still lives, since philosophy never dies,” Cahill quips.

Despite being on the med-school track, “by default,” Cahill discovered brain research as an undergraduate student in Evanston at Northwestern University (NU). “I needed to stay in state to get Illinois state scholarship money,” he reflects. At NU he continued to study Latin and spent a semester in Rome his junior year. “Life works out in funny ways,” he believes. “That [trip] was the benefit of taking Latin back at Fenwick.”

While in college, the idea of medical school faded. After working on memory-enhancing drugs at G.D. Searle in Illinois for two years, Cahill earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience in 1990 from the University of California at Irvine. Following post-doctoral research in Germany, he returned to UC Irvine to extend his research to studies of human subjects, which in turn led to discoveries about sex influences on emotional memory and revolutionary findings regarding sex influences on brain function, which he finds quite gratifying.

Prof. Cahill at UCI. (Photo courtesy of Orange County Register/Drew A. Kelley.)

For the past 18 years or so Cahill has been immersed in the differences between the male and female brain. “We used to believe that men and women were not so different outside of the ‘bikini zone,’” he says. But research is proving that women and men are very different in other ways, too: “The female heart, lungs, liver, immune system and brain are not the same as the male’s,” he informs, adding that medical research has been built disproportionately on studies of male organs and brains. “Women have not been treated equally because they have been treated the same,” he asserts.

Cahill is a leading advocate for the need to study biological sex differences in all of medicine. Adversaries have called him a “neurosexist.” “There has been enormous resistance,” he admits. His findings have been featured in the New York Times, London Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Quillette, an Australian online magazine focused on science, technology, news, culture and politics. On television, he has been interviewed by PBS, CNN and CBS. (Cahill’s “60 Minutes” piece was highlighted on “The Colbert Report.”) At the lecture podium, he has been recognized as an Outstanding Professor at UCI’s School of Biological Sciences in 2005-06 and in 2007-08.

Other than playing tennis as a senior, Cahill says he wasn’t very involved in extra-curricular activities as a Friar. “But I still know the words to the Fight Song,” he proudly declares. He remembers Fenwick as “a serious place at all levels. This whole attitude of seriousness was imbued on high school kids from the top down, including the concept of discipline – which is much maligned today — and self-discipline. One of the best things you can teach anyone is to suck it up and make it happen.”

“I learned more at Fenwick than I did at Harvard.”

– Prof. Bill Mayer ’74

A Political Voice

Prof. Mayer at Northeastern University (Boston).

Every four years, Bill Mayer’s phone rings more than usual at Northeastern University in Boston. Members of the media seek out his expert commentary during U.S. presidential election years. “I’ve done a lot of research and writing on that topic,” he admits. Reporters from the Boston Herald, Newsweek and the Christian Science Monitor have quoted Mayer. You can see him on videos aired by C-SPAN (the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network), too.

Fielding such calls is a natural for Mayer, whose forte is American politics. After graduating from Fenwick in 1974, Mayer earned a B.A. in government in ’79 from Harvard, where he finished up his Ph.D. in political science 10 years later. Prof. Mayer’s tenure at Northeastern began in 1991. Under his American government specialty, he has taught introductory classes as well as courses in “American Political Thought,” “Public Opinion, Voting and Elections” and “Politics and the Mass Media.” Next spring, leading up to the 2020 election, he again will teach his favorite course while the U.S. presidential nomination process is taking place.

“I’m grateful for the teachers I had at Fenwick,” says Mayer, a native of River Forest, IL, and St. Luke Parish & School. His older brother, Joseph Mayer ’73 (both were valedictorians), paved the way to Fenwick. “Joe helped me so much, especially with math,” says Bill. “I really owe a lot to him.” (The older Mayer brother became a medical doctor and presently is a neurologist with DuPage Medical Group.)

Bill Mayer as a Fenwick junior in 1973.

Young Bill served as editor of The Wick student newspaper for one semester and was on the Debate Team all four years as a Friar student. “I did well in debate,” he reports. “We advanced to the semi-finals of Catholic Nationals my senior year.” His debate partner was a junior, John McSweeney ’75. “Our coach was Father Motl for my first three years, then Mr. Arellano took over.”

In addition to teaching, Mayer is an accomplished author as well. He has published two of his own books, co-authored two other books, and edited and wrote chapters for seven other publications. He also has contributed some 50 scholarly articles to academic publications. (See “Alumni Authors.”) In the “Acknowledgements” section of his first book, The Changing American Mind (1992), Mayer thanks three of his teachers at Fenwick:

  • The late Fr. Jordan McGrath, O.P., who passed away last August at age 86, was his math teacher “for three of my four years. He taught me how to think rigorously,” says Mayer, who points out that he taught statistics earlier in his career.
  • Mr. John Heneghan “was a wonderful history teacher who taught [us]… how to take raw materials and try to interpret how they fit into the larger sweep of American history.”
  • Former English Teacher Mr. James Kucienski was “really good at passing along ideas about the teaching of literature,” Mayer says. “I had him my senior year.”

Additionally, Mayer is grateful for taking four years of Latin (two were required at the time). “Latin is a great way to learn about language,” he contends, “because it is constructed in a different way than English, where meaning is determined by word endings rather than position in the sentence. It, therefore, makes you much more conscious of noun cases and verb tenses.”

English Teacher Mr. James Kucienski was Fenwick’s resident grammarian, which Mayer says he didn’t appreciate at the time.

With the benefit of hindsight, he also now realizes how important freshman English class was to a youthful, 14-year-old Friar. “Our grammar textbook was thick, and the study could be tedious: subject-verb agreement, dangling participles and so forth. These disciplines are not terribly popular today, but I hope they still do it at Fenwick.

“I’ve always been regarded as a good writer,” he adds, attributing that reputation to his high school grammar instruction. “Trust me: There are some poor writers among political scientists!” Truth be told, “I learned more at Fenwick than I did at Harvard,” Mayer concludes.

The Northern Lights Man

Bob Lysak in 1972.

Bob Lysak, a professor of physics and astronomy, is interested in Theoretical Space Plasma Physics, especially magnetospheric physics, auroral particle acceleration, the dynamics of ultra-low-frequency (ULF) waves in the magnetosphere, magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling, and the dynamics of field-aligned currents. He is fascinated by aurorae: the natural light displayed in the Earth’s sky; the phenomenon also is referred to as polar lights or northern lights (aurora borealis).

This infatuation is, perhaps, part of the reason why he has been located for the past 37 years at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, which are four latitudinal degrees north of his hometown of Westchester, IL. “I’m a glutton for winters,” jokes Lysak, who attended Divine Infant Parish as a child. This past semester he was on sabbatical in Australia, collaborating on southern lights (aurora australis) research around the Antarctic and designing computer models of the Earth’s magnetic-field oscillations.

After graduating from Fenwick in 1972, Lysak enrolled at Michigan State (earning a B.S. degree in three years) and then at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. in physics in 1980. His post-doctoral studies, conducted near Munich, Germany, focused on extraterrestrial physics.

Prof. Lysak at the University of Minnesota.

Recognized among his peers for making significant scientific contributions to society, the professor was selected the by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) as a 2011 Fellow, a designation conferred upon fewer than 0.1% of all AGU members in any given year. The European Geosciences Union also awarded Lysak the Hannes Alfvén Medal, which honors scientists who have achieved exceptional international standing in Solar-Terrestrial Sciences.

When he reflects on his time at Fenwick some 50 years ago, Lysak points to two non-scientific events that positively affected his illustrious career:

  1. Serving as editor-in-chief of The Wick student newspaper, where “I learned to write to a deadline.” (English Teacher and alumnus Mr. George Wendt ’65 was the moderator.)
  2. Participating in stage plays as part of the Blackfriars Guild, where “I was in front of people and talking.” Lysak, who has been lecturing for nearly four decades, adds that he took part in Debate & Forensics, run by Fr. James Motl, O.P. “but I wasn’t very good.”
Former Fenwick Math Teacher Mr. Ed Ludwig in 1964.

Lysak and his Honors Math classmates were taught all four years by the aforementioned Mr. Ludwig, who had a reputation among students as a somewhat stern disciplinarian. “It was early-1970’s turmoil,” he laughs. “We had our issues, but we developed a good relationship. During our senior year we worked on problems and asked a lot of questions. Mr. Ludwig encouraged us to go at our own pace and [to] explore.” Also influential was Science Teacher Fr. Dave Delich, O.P., who would “let us hang around the lab after school and ‘play’ with the equipment.”

All of these experiences taught Lysak valuable lessons and skills, as did commuting: “I got used to taking public transportation and buses,” he says. “St. Joe’s was less than a mile from our house, but I had a pretty good academic record in grade school and wanted to go to Fenwick. It was worth it.”

Oops, Did We Miss Someone?

The seven professors highlighted here only scratches the surface of Fenwick alumni in academia. If you know of an alumnus or alumna who has a Ph.D. and/or is a college professor, tell us about him or her!

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