A Rising Tide

University brings in record number of high-achieving students

11/12/2009 | By: John Trent  |

For Muir Morrison, an invitation into one of the College of Science’s research labs has made all of the difference in his college experience.

During the second semester of his freshman year, Morrison had a conversation with College of Science Dean Jeff Thompson.

Thompson, a longtime member of the University’s Physics faculty, suggested that Morrison, a Physics major, might benefit from working in a lab.

Within a few days, arrangements were made for Morrison to work in the lab of Physics professor Jonathan Weinstein.

“I could not have imagined at the time how wonderful an opportunity that was,” says Morrison, now a 20-year-old junior. “I realize now how grateful I am to Dr. Thompson for that. I’ve been working in Dr. Weinstein’s lab for about a year and a half now, and it’s been fantastic. I’ve learned so much. Working with atomic physics in Dr. Weinstein’s lab, playing with lasers, cooling atoms and discovering new things, it’s been great.”

Then Morrison pauses and smiles. For a young man who grew up about an hour and a half from Reno in the small town of Quincy, Calif., the journey thus far has been far beyond what he could have thought.

“They see something in me, I guess,” he says of his professors, “and sometimes I wonder what it is they see.”

Of course, what they see is a bright, talented and inquisitive student, the type of student that the University of Nevada has worked hard in recruiting to campus over the past few years.  It shouldn’t be surprising to note that last week the University announced that this year’s freshman class was its highest academically performing first-year class ever. Their number includes nine National Merit Scholars, bringing the University’s total to 25.

Morrison, in many ways, is a renaissance type of student, and clearly embodies the University’s academic resurgence. He is gifted both in the classroom (he’s a National Merit Scholar) and out of the classroom (before choosing Physics, he gave serious thought to becoming a professional musician. Morrison is a talented and creative saxophonist).

“I think it’s good to know to know a little bit about everything,” Morrison says, “simply for the reason that it makes you a better person.”

It’s a sentiment that two other accomplished College of Science students, Rachel Wearne and Matt Klippenstein, can also relate to.

Wearne, at 23, is by her own reckoning, a “super-super” senior. With a little more than a semester left in her University career, the Geology major has excelled in the classroom while following an unlikely path to Nevada.

Wearne, following graduation from Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley, Calif., attended junior college for three years before, “I exhausted all the credits I could take.” She was originally looking for schools that offered a degree in atmospheric sciences.

“When I saw that UNR offered it, I jumped on it and put in my application,” she said. Once at Nevada, she changed her major to Geology, hoping one day to become a researcher and a professor.

“It’s been great,” she says. “I didn’t expect to end up as a Geology major, but it’s been a really great experience. The professors have been great and all of the Geology courses I’ve taken have been just right. The little things, like being able to talk to your professors right after class, and not having to wait for office hours, have been really great.”

Wearne smiles broadly when asked about the “dual” nature of the College of Science and the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering , which provides students the rare opportunity to be part of a  decades-respected and known “school” within one of the University’s newest and rising academic units.

Of the Mackay School, she says, with obvious pride, “Mackay is a well-known name, especially in Nevada. It provides a lot of opportunities, too; it’s where a lot of the scholarships have come from, and I know for students like me (Wearne works two jobs, including one in the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology), it really makes a huge difference.”

Wearne has shown her true Mackay colors with her participation on the school’s renowned collegiate mining team – the Mackay Muckers – which nearly won a world championship last spring.

“I’ve met a lot of great people through the mining team,” Wearne says. “It’s international, it’s huge, and I’ve been able to meet people from schools all over the country.”

Klippenstein, 20, a sophomore from Reno who graduated from Bishop Manogue High School, admits that his National Merit Scholarship was a “big part of coming to Nevada.”

“Being paid to be able to go to school has been huge,” he says. “It’s enabled me to concentrate more fully on my academics, and to also have some free time to enjoy what the campus has to offer.”

Klippenstein is a Biology major who hopes one day to become a physician, perhaps an orthopedic surgeon.

“Already, I’m finding that a lot of the Biology professors relate the things that they are teaching to medical things, which is great for those of us who are looking at medical careers,” he says. “When we’re studying animal physiology, they always point out that this is similar to humans in this way … so it helps you out for the future.

“I feel I’m right on track.”

Although he had grown up in a family with many graduates of the University, Klippenstein was still surprised by the beauty of Nevada’s campus, and the many new facilities the campus offers.

“I knew a little bit about the campus, but during the recruitment, I was on a tour of the Knowledge Center, of the Joe (Crowley Student Union), and I found about the new science building (the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center) that that they were building,” he says. “The library is just awesome, and that’s such a huge part of the campus now. It really seems like they’re wanting to make the campus nice, and they’re expanding it with a lot of new buildings.”

All in all, the experience has been one that Morrison, Wearne and Klippenstein won’t soon forget.

“I haven’t had a class yet that wasn’t taught by a Ph.D. professor,” Morrison says. “The professors at UNR, they enjoy the research, certainly, but they’re also here because they love to teach. They enjoy sharing their knowledge with their students.

“That’s a huge perk when you come to UNR.”


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