Author Archive for: ‘John Syme ’85’

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NASA Astronaut Tom Marshburn ’82 on the Green, Green Grass of Alma Mater


NASA Astronaut Tom Marshburn ’82 came home to alma mater’s patch of planet Earth this week, after more than five months in early 2013 on the International Space Station. It was a pleasure to shake his hand after having been in touch by phone, email and satellite uplink!

(front, l-r) Tom, Grace and Ann Marshburn lead the way followed by Davidson resident sister-in-law Nancy Marshburn (rear, l) and Wendy Roberts, executive assistant to the president.

With grace and aplomb, my buddy Tom, the astronaut, gave several presentations on campus, as well as visiting the kudzu goats out by the cross-country trails (see previous post) and otherwise gadding about campus with his daughter Grace and wife Ann, two lovely and delightfully good-humored ladies.

Tom and a gang of Wildcats on the way to Vail Commons for lunch!

At a Common Hour talk on Tuesday—unofficially subtitled “Bean Dip, Stewed Prunes, ZZ Top and YoYo Ma”—Marshburn spoke of things like translational velocities and parabolic arcs that match the curve of the Earth, by way of explaining the concept of orbital micro-gravity. Then, he recounted how his Soyuz rocket blasted off from Kazakhstan (“like lying on your back in a building that becomes a live animal”) and traveled to an altitude of some 250 miles up, sometimes at speeds of five miles per second. (Yes, per second.)

Next, with plenty of video clips to illustrate, Marshburn recounted some of the “science of opportunity” experiments he and his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts performed with “objects of opportunity” including smuggled vanillin (an ideal viscosity) and duct tape (self-explanatory).

The Physics of Lunch, Part Deux

“You start to notice things,” he said. “A lot of our experiments started with ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ and then ‘I wonder what would happen if….’”

• Spinning objects seeking a lower energy state behave differently on their spinning axes depending on whether they are liquid or solid, or both. Application: understanding how fuel tanks affect space flight physics.

Marshburn having a blast from the past in his old bedroom window in Julia Johnston House overlooking Main Street.

• Table salt in a zip-lock bag coalesces in a noticeable pattern at a particular rate. (The grains of sodium chloride are dehydrated from food saline, which is the safety norm on ISS, to prevent weightless grains of salt from flying about willy-nilly at mealtime.) Application: Understanding how the very matter of the primordial universe came together into stars and planets, solar systems and galaxies.

• An Alka-Seltzer tablet dissolves in a huge drop of water big as your fist, in mid-air. Application: Um, I forget exactly, but it is totally cool to look at. In general, weightless liquids in space share some behavioral characteristics with micro-liquids on Earth, particularly in terms of “capillary” flow. Applications range from inkjet printers to HIV diagnostic tools.

Me and my buddy Tom, the astronaut.

At the end of his presentation, when Marshburn’s PowerPoint relinquished the screen to his computer’s desktop, the juxtaposition of astronaut and regular guy came into focus: next to desktop folders marked “Cosmonauts” and “Award Debriefs” were others marked “Invest and Retire” and that old, familiar standby, “Files I Never Use.”

And in the “Launch Pad Tunes” folder? U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day,” Joe Satriani’s “Summer Song” and Muse, maybe a little “Uprising”?….

Tuesday night, after dinner at the President’s House with classmates, roommates, professors and others, Marshburn gave a public lecture in Duke Family Performance Hall complete with Q&A for the kids of all ages and photo-opps for all at the reception afterward.

Richardson Professor of Physics Larry Cain and former advisee Astronaut Tom Marshburn share a pre-lecture moment against a video of Astronaut Mike Hopkins in a pre-launch press conference.

Wednesday afternoon, Marshburn made time in his schedule for a visit to College Communications—housed in the college’s Julia Johnston House on Main Street, where he lived upstairs as a sophomore when the building was student housing. He regaled staffers with stories of how he and his housemates cheered, in what is now the office kitchen area, for televised matches of the U.S. Hockey Team in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

He also regaled us with the story of the “party of the century,” held in the JJ House that year, a costume party with the theme of dressing up as your repressed desire. Already as a 20-year-old, though, he knew his own desire to be an astronaut, and showed up wrapped in tin foil and sporting a borrowed motorcycle helmet….

At a physics seminar hosted Wednesday afternoon by his erstwhile faculty adviser, Richardson Professor of Physics Larry Cain, Marshburn went in to deeper detail about all things physics, for instance radiation (astronauts in space are classified as “radiation workers” and can sometimes see solar protons flashing through their eyeballs). He talked about International Space Station experiments and observations that are adding mightily to the core of human knowledge about nutrition, mental health, osteoporosis, muscle wasting, fish and plants, microencapulation, antimattter, dark matter and “strangelets.”

As luck would have it, Marshburn’s fellow astronaut, Mike Hopkins, was blasting off from Kazakhstan during the seminar, so Marshburn toggled the NASA feed in at an opportune moment to watch the launch. (“I’m getting sweaty palms just watching.”)

Marshburn ended with a quote from Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers: “The most important words ever written on the maps of human knowledge are terra incognita — unknown territory.”

With awe in the spirit Tom shares with Davidson, with admiration for him as a fellow Earthling alumnus with “humane instincts and a creative and disciplined mind for a life of leadership and service,” and with thanks on behalf of Davidson to Tom, Ann and Grace for a wonderful visit, I’ll close with a quote from Tom himself, from one of the April satellite downlinks from ISS to the C. Shaw Smith 900 Room:

“I think space flight is actually the epitome of what is important about a liberal arts education. We see this absolute wonder that’s up here, we see it with the robotics of exploration on Mars and in our solar system and even leaving our solar system….

“But how that relates to humans is the most important part of it. We can have complete technical mastery over our world, but we can still do bad things with that. So it’s not just about enriching our culture, which is very important, but it’s actually essential for our survival, that we know what to do with the technical accomplishments we’ve made.”

For archival coverage on Marshburn, including links to Davidson and NASA video, explore here.



Astronaut Tom Marshburn ’82


Astronaut Tom Marshburn ’82 (eleventh from left), daughter Grace and wife Ann took a few minutes out of a busy morning on campus to visit the goats on the XC trails.


Marshburn will speak at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Duke Family Performance Hall. (See “Events” at

Read more about Marshburn.

Read more about the goats.

President Carol Quillen: What’s In Your Elevator Speech?


This just in from a campuswide “town meeting” with President Carol Quillen and several enthusiastic hundreds of her closest campus friends.

It was standing room only during Common Hour in the Lilly Family Gallery, 11:05 a.m., Sept. 3, 2013.

“What will be different because we had this meeting?” Carol Quillen asked the crowd. “I hope you leave here with a sense of the high level of aspiration we have for the next several years, as well as a sense of objectives we hope to accomplish this academic year.”

President Carol Quillen: “Inspired not by fears of what we might lose, but by dreams of what we can accomplish.” (photo Bill Giduz)

Against a backdrop of stunning campus photography, compelling video clips and a few brief, concise and specific bullet points about Davidson’s most current themes and aspirations, Quillen called forth the good will and good work of Davidson’s staff, faculty, students, alumni, parents, friends and partners—up to and including those we have not yet met.

That’s a lot.

So, what would your 60-second “elevator speech” be to someone who knows nothing of Davidson? Quillen asked the crowd at one point during Q & A.

But first, Quillen deployed her formidable skills at evoking the Davidson of this moment—this very present and changing moment—in the collective mind assembled. Together, she said, we have designed new facilities, built and strengthened “Transition to Impact” initiatives, capped the strongest fundraising year in history, created new courses of study, and recruited the best faculty and staff nationwide. Among many other things.

“It’s an iterative process,” she said, “and we need your continued guidance to make it work.”

Quillen touched on many facets of the Davidson character that reflect brightly into the world, including the Honor Code, Division I athletics, growing relationships in Charlotte, and The Davidson Trust. “How do we pay for all of it?” someone asked in a video clip. Quillen responded that to stand fast in who we are and what we are about, with an endowment notably smaller than many peers, we are seeking more funding from people who do not yet know us. See “elevator speech” above.

Yes, we are reimagining the liberal arts, Quillen continued, and our commitment to the liberal arts ideal grows stronger.

“Approaching the liberal arts educational philosophy as a historian,” said Quillen, a history Ph.D., “I can tell you it hasn’t changed much since the 15th century!”

That said, it is 2013. “Our subjects, programs and methods change over time,” she said.

Then she moved outward from a classroom perspective to the broader, quotidian life of the mind, body and spirit at a small, residential, liberal arts college like Davidson. With a fine and heartfelt tip of the hat to President Emeritus Sam Spencer for his visionary work to help diversify Davidson in terms of race and gender in the 1960s and 1970s, Quillen sprang forward to more recent strategic planning themes that Davidson’s people—many of them in the room—were engaged in even before her arrival: interdisciplinarity, global perspectives, sustainability in all its senses, diversity and inclusion to match and meet the world we live in.

On the “excellence and access” plank of the platform that must accompany and support diversity and inclusion, Quillen stated the case succinctly: “Economic opportunity must be more than two words we say.”

On Davidson’s ethos of leadership and service, and the resulting disproportionate impact for good in the world, she let a long and growing list of alumni examples do the heavy lifting, including Tim ’00 and Brian ’07 Helfrich’s Summit Coffee just down Main Street, OrthoCarolina CEO Dan Murrey ’87 in Charlotte, Lowell Bryan ’68 and Steve Justus ’78 at the Touch Foundation, the civil rights advocacy of Yale law professor and GLBT advocate Bill Eskridge ’73, Agnes Scott President Elizabeth Kiss ’83, Astronaut Tom Marshburn ’82, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx ’93, education accessibility advocate Tiffany Hollis ’04, scientific researcher Rachel McCord ’04, educator and spoken-word artist Clint Smith ’10, Colgate University Provost Doug Hicks ’90…. The list went on.

Back to the tasks at hand for ensuring that this list continue to go on, Quillen reviewed, renewed and refreshed many specific programs and initiatives for “exploring what’s possible” this academic year and beyond.

She encouraged staff and faculty to get outside their departments and meet their colleagues from across campus: “Ask how what they do relates to what you do. That’s where some really great ideas come from.”

Those who know Davidson best, she said, should call attention in Admission to students who would be a good fit here, particularly those who might not apply without encouragement.

We should ask ourselves what makes Davidson different, and what it is and what it is becoming. And each person who comes in the door—students most obviously, and by extension everyone—gets to help decide just exactly what Davidson is and what it’s becoming.

That’s inclusion, said Quillen.

So, staff, faculty, students, alumni, parents, friends and partners, what’s your 60-second elevator speech about Davidson College?

Listen Up, Freshmen: Welcome Home


Listen up, freshmen!

Your parents are gone and classes are underway. You’re on your own now, but also kind of, you know, not. You’re free but not quite easy, footloose with fancies zooming all about your person. You are happy-dancing liberated for the very first time in your life in many ways, even while poking your swole noggin into the Davidson yoke of academic challenges like you have Never. Seen. Before. Just you wait. You will come to love a solid B, and perhaps even feel some real affection for a sketchy C+.

Here’s the thing: College is about more than academics, much more.

Precious, circa 1981

I’ve got my own academic Davidson transcript in a bottom drawer around here somewhere. It means nothing to me on its own. Oh, it’s fine by the numbers, mostly. But its important function is as a sort of Hogwartian “pensieve,” recalling to me a favorite professor’s wry humor or dramatic classroom athleticism or kind encouragement during office hours as I despaired—despaired, I tell you!—over some feckless failure on my part, real or imagined. A dramatis persona, I was.

Another swirling memory strand in my personal pensieve might enliven even today the ache I felt for a classroom crush’s clueless smile in my direction, or perhaps open the floodgates of many moments sublime and intervals hilarious in smoky dorm-room bull sessions, when I should have been writing some damn paper. (See “C+” above.)

You get the idea.

This past week, we’ve thrown a lot at you. In loco parentis, we’ve paired you as best we could with roommates, and herded you into workshops, and harangued you with orientations, and inspired you with speeches, and quizzed you in book sessions, and marched you around town on service projects….

Maybe it’s too much, I don’t know. Time was, an 18-year-old’s mom helped him carry in a small footlocker and a stereo, hugged him for as long as she could discreetly get away with in the stairwell, and then took off. Thanks, Mom.

But times change. We have helicopter parents now (or at least that’s what we call them in this century) and Facebook and texting and Skype in our pockets, all manner of tethers and temptations to poke the people we love all day long.

Resist this.

Resist the temptation to be in daily contact with the folks back home. I don’t mean you should eschew the occasional spontaneous point of howdy with a loved one, or even a late-night wail-fest with the parental units if you really need it. But I urge you to resist any and all stultifying consistency of constant contact with those who already know you best—but only know you so far.

Instead, give yourself room, real time in this real space, to claim your own Davidson experience and your own life, day by day, week by week. Craft it for yourself as you go along, with the help and ideas and care and spirit of this place and these people.

Be yourself, and become yourself.

Welcome home.

A Gay Time Was Had By All: Wildcat Pride!


Gay and gay-friendly Wildcats contributed to a record turnout at Charlotte’s annual gay pride street festival yesterday, marching with a Davidson banner in the Bank of America Pride Parade.

Click to enlarge.

It was the first gay pride parade held since 1994. I rode my old Comet ragtop in that long-ago parade, with my church’s flag out one side, a rainbow flag out the other, and half the choir in the back seat. I’ve pledged the Comet for Wildcat use next year. There was even talk of a higher-ed group effort by area colleges and universities, with floats and all!

I’m not the world’s most consistent activist, for gaiety or anything else. I am moody, and sometimes I am just lazy. But I do know that it is important for everyone to stand up now and then for who and what they are, to show everybody else that that’s okay. I’m even more sure of that after talking to the young alumni and current students who joined several faculty and staff members yesterday, out there loud and proud in the middle of life’s rich pageant. There were the obligatory rainbow drag queens that tend to make the front-page newspaper pictures, and there were far greater numbers of regular folks, and there was pretty much everything in between, all parading gaily forward to consistent cheers and, yes, a smattering here and there of non-love-based preachifying. (Retort du jour: [brightly] “Is there glitter in Hell?”)

It was a great day to be a Wildcat. Now back on campus the first day of school, it is yet another one. To all Wildcats: Happy year of discovering new ways of being clear and free with exactly who and what you are!

For more pictures, visit the Gay-Straight Alumni Network of Davidson’s Facebook page.

A Personal Thank-You to Parents, Students, Faculty, Staff, Alumni—F.O.D.s All!


I am touched and humbled by how many readers—parents in particular, as well as faculty, students, staff and alumni Friends of Dodger—have come up to me in the last two days to express their personal sympathy on the sudden loss in January of my best friend, Dodger the dog. Thank you, old friends I’ve not seen in a long while and new friends I’ve only just met. Thank you.

We keep Dodger’s Wildcat bowl on top of the fridge and use if for all occasional canine visitors to College Communications, hooray!

It’s not yet quite time for me to get my next dog/editorial assistant. (If I’m ever completely out of the running for a “next dog,” just take me on down around back and shoot me.) In the meantime, do keep reading this one alumnus staff writer’s take on the continuing adventures of this fine place, right here on Daybook. You can subscribe by email at right and/or you can like Daybook on Facebook.

Do keep reading, I should say, and viewing and listening and clicking all over the place on our new and improved website homepage and social media hub, as well as the Davidson Journal!

And vive the wide open spirit of Dodger the squirrel-chasing fool dog, and of all the inquiring minds and bodies and hearts and souls—human and canine—that have enlivened and continue to enliven this place.

With deep gratitude and a “Forward!” shout,


Happy Orientation, Class of 2017!


Welcome, Class of 2017!

What would move-in day at Davidson be if not steamy (not to say hot as Hades)?

By lunchtime, the Class of 2017 & Co. were happy to settle down under the shade of Chambers Lawn for a picnic lunch or in Vail Commons for an alumni luncheon. As an alumnus myself, I joined the latter gathering, where no fewer than 11 freshmen claim at least one of their parents as one of my 1985 classmates. Wow. And, further: Eleven (11), wow, wow! There’s a demographic sweet spot for you, and I’m proud to be a surrogate “loco parent” to these kids. Oh, wait, that’s not what the “loco” in in loco parentis means, you say? Hmm. Well, I’ll do my best.


So, this afternoon, I hopped on my trusty red bike and crossed muggy afternoon paths with my colleague Bill Giduz ’74, who shot the pictures you see here, as we followed the teeming hordes of our newfound loco kids to their various sessions. In the session on campus and religious life, the full rich pageant of this place’s heart and soul and belief and non-belief and religion and wonder and questioning was on full, vibrant display courtesy of the Chaplain’s Office.


Two quotes that came across the PowerPoint screen’s diverse display of Davidson students seeking and doing good: “World peace must develop out of inner peace.” —Dalai Lama, and “The longest journey is the journey inward.” —Dag Hammarskjöld. Welcome to the next stop on your longest journey, Class of 2017!


Over in the C. Shaw Smith 900 Room, upperclass student tech support workers were finishing up a presentation about all things IT. Electronic response cards in the hands of each student were tallying their answers to various questions, including “What operating system do you use?” One (1) person answered “I don’t know,” which generated some amusement. Might have been the same person who asked about how to set up a landline phone. “Um, you’ll have to come see us,” came the response. In fact, “Come see us” was a tagline on many responses—an oh-so-Davidson point of high-touch comfort in a high-tech world gone mad. I digress, but still. Nice to know there are real, good Davidson people on the other end of the fiber-optic or wireless connection!

“No, you didn’t!” Oh, yes, I did!”

Next stop, Barber Theatre for a talking-to by campus police. “Yes, we are the ‘real’ police,” students learned. There was plenty of useful information about all the ways to get in trouble—and more importantly all the ways not to (see in loco parentis, above)—up to and including free bike locks and a “silent witness” link on the cops website. Also, a plea for first-years to “like us on Facebook. Police officers don’t have a lot of friends….” Awwww. I like you, Davidson Campus Police! Now, about that parking ticket….

On to the next session…

Finally, over to E.H. Little Library for a bit of history and trivia. Students groaned with relief to know Davidson is no longer a manual labor school, and an even bigger sigh went up when the tales were told of the demise of beanie tradition and the school’s long-ago spirit color change from pink and blue to red and black. Whew, that would have made for some nasty-looking uniforms. They learned about the Ghost of Old Chambers and about the importance of upholding the tradition of looking one another in the eye and greeting one another on campus as fellow travellers, adventurers and gentlepersons. Earbuds or no earbuds, that simple and longstanding tradition is emblematic of a Davidson ethos and sense of shared character that Davidson alumni, faculty and staff cherish. We hope you do, too!


For more photos and Orientation coverage, check early and often at

For ongoing, random slices of Davidson life on campus and around the world, seen through the eyes of one alumnus staffer, you can subscribe to Daybook Davidson by entering your email in the field at the top right of this page, or like the Daybook page on Facebook.


Happy New Website, Happy New Year!


A rainy Monday-morning staff meeting can turn out to be a more cheerful event than you might think, at Davidson. Such was the case yesterday when guest speakers Professor of Political Science Ken Menkhaus and Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Josh Putnam tag-teamed an informal talk in Alvarez College Union.

Current events have boosted both Menkaus and Putnam into national and international headlines in the last year in particular, Menkhaus based largely on his research and field expertise in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, Putnam for his spot-on political forecasting blog Frontloading HQ and assorted party minutia-minding.

“They’re ba-a-a-ack!”

Having written and contributed to stories about these two and many, many Davidson professors across all disciplines, I say kudos to them and our whole exemplary faculty, as well as the staff who hold up this fine college. I’ll see many of them at our college’s annual opening meeting tomorrow morning, while nearly 500 members of the Class of 2017 prepare for early move-in tomorrow evening! Click here for Orientation details.

And speaking of clicking, constant readers will have already noted the bold’n’user-friendly design of Davidson’s spanking new website. I toot here the horn of my wonderful College Communications colleagues and those across campus who brought this “long time coming” project to fruition. Toot, toot!

My favorite features, so far (and even I’m not nearly done clicking!):

It’s pretty. [Refresh] It’s pretty again! Et cetera.

• It’s useful. (Ditto above). The search function in particular is more efficient, and ever-refining as databases near and far reindex to a streamlined infrastructure of fewer than 4,000 pages—down from more than 19,000! For more on the redesign, read “Davidson Launches Redesigned Website.”

• The Events block is cleaner and more easily scannable on the top page, and bolstered by a solid reimagining of the master calendar underneath.

• The Social Media bar at the bottom of the top page (“below the fold” for us ink-stained wretches) is an easy delight even if you don’t know a Tweet from a tiny url. Yes, the feed itself is a bit of a Commons conveyor belt of digital detritus, but have you seen the Internets lately?

In the News provides a dedicated page for links to external media that feature Davidson newsmakers. Why reinvent the wheel, right? Check back early and often! (From the News block in the middle of the top page, click All News to go to entries for In the News, Daybook, and Social Media. Also, you can subscribe to Daybook alerts by email from the page you are on now, or Like the Daybook’s Facebook page.)

These are just a few of my favorite things. What are some of yours? Get clicking!


Jon Cox ’14: Soul-Searching, India, and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting


What Jonathan Cox ’14 did on his summer “vacation” would be considered a dream job by many: writing about important global topics for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.


While I was in India I had more than one moment of soul-searching where I sat down and sincerely asked myself what the heck I’d gotten myself into. I had thrown myself halfway around the world to write about a very complicated topic  for an organization that expected quality, when my prior journalistic experience amounted to a couple articles in my high school yearbook. Fortunately, feeling overmatched and out of my depth is pretty much a constant  emotion for me as a Davidson student—as anyone who’s written papers for Dr. [Brian] Shaw will tell you. So to tackle my topic in India I used the same technique I use when I’m writing a difficult paper in Davidson. I pestered people who knew about the topic until they would do anything to get rid of me (including telling me what I wanted to know), and made up with hard work what I lacked in finesse. So whether I was bluffing my way past security in Osmania Hospital, or sitting in my room wracking my brains for a good opening line, my Davidson education stood me in good stead. And I had a lot of fun in the process.”

The Dean Rusk International Studies Program’s relationship with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provides some of Davidson’s most exciting opportunities for students, says Director Chris Alexander, who also serves as the college’s associate dean for international programs and professor of political science.

I hesitate even to call it an ‘internship’ because this is serious, big-time journalism work,” says Alexander. “Every year, we select and fund two students who spend the summer reporting on a global issue that does not receive the attention it deserves in the mainstream media. The students do all of the things that a professional journalist has to do:  research the issue, pitch the story, hustle the interviews, write compelling text, and work under deadline. And they do it in places like Israel and Palestine, India, the Philippines.  They see their work published on the Pulitzer Center’s web site, and the best material often gets picked up by major news outlets. I’m so impressed by the work they do—and I’m so jealous of the experiences they have!”

Read Cox’s reporting on the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting page.

Davidson in the Wide-Awake World: Steph, Lowell, Steve and Chris in Tanzania, the Summit Coffee Gang on Main Street



Yesterday’s breaking news feature “Net Gain” by Rick Reilly on, about Steph Curry‘s work with the Nothing But Nets campaign against malaria contains the following compellingly crafted line describing a crowd’s reaction in Camp Nyarugusu, Tanzania: “These refugees don’t know dunks, nor do they know why a 25-year-old NBA star, coming off his breakout season, would fly more than 8,000 miles and 24 hours, risk malaria, typhoid and yellow fever, just to hang bed nets in their mud huts for the anti-malaria program Nothing But Nets. On his vacation.”

Talk about perspective.

Reilly’s ESPN article also made me think of another alumni initiative in Tanzania, the medical work of Lowell Bryan ’68, Steve Justus ’78 and others through the Touch Foundation, which Lowell and Steve talked about on campus in June.


Finally, the article also contains another name I recognized, Chris Helfrich, formerly an advancement officer in College Relations, now director of Nothing But Nets. Chris’s brothers Tim ’00 and Brian ’07 own Davidson’s civic-minded community hub, Summit Coffee Co. on Main Street, which just announced a Summit coffeehouse and pub on Patterson Court on the Davidson campus. Read all about it on

Here’s to staying wide awake and making the world a better place!

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