The Hankla Award: Honoring One of Georgia State’s Past Leaders — and Rewarding Tomorrow’s

Long before he decided to enroll at Georgia State, Matthew Haddad was exploring the world of science. Occasionally, this caused some problems.

“I used to take stuff apart in the living room, like the VCR,” he remembers. “Made my mother pull her hair out. But to her credit, she brought me more stuff to mess with rather than telling me to stop. She used to take me to D.C. to go to the Smithsonian and she’d do chemistry experiments with me. As long as I can remember, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Haddad’s mom also signed him up for Saturday programs at Georgia State for kids interested in science and technology. Today, he’s just earned his bachelor’s degree in physics — and he’s topped off his Georgia State career with the Robert H. Hankla Award, presented annually to the most outstanding senior in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Honoring a Georgia State Pioneer

It’s only fitting for the department’s top student honor to be named for Robert Hankla. He was, after all, the second person hired by the department, and he went on to teach physics for 30 years, 10 of which he also served as assistant dean and director of graduate studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

His widow, Alice K. Hankla, remembers her late husband as someone who was equally diligent as an administrator and as a teacher. He championed the physics department in its early years, she recalls, and fostered close relationships among the various faculty members. In the classroom, he was dedicated to making complex topics accessible to students. “He always wanted to make sure the students understood,” she says, “by demonstration experiments and everyday examples.” Hankla also sponsored the first Society of Physics Students and initiated Georgia State’s charter chapter of the Sigma Pi Sigma honors society.

In her late husband’s case, the phrase “he died doing what he loved” is not a cliché but a literal statement: Hankla suffered a heart attack while giving a physics lecture in 1995. The physics department memorialized him by presenting the first Hankla Award the following year; Alice and her sons, Charles and Allen, began contributing in 1997 and have done so ever since.

“Our family has always supported education. We’re a family of teachers,” says Alice, who has a Ph.D. in physics herself and taught both college and private school students before retiring. One of the Hanklas’ sons, Allen, is a laser engineer who teaches physics in Colorado; the other, Charles, is an associate professor of political science here at Georgia State. “So it’s natural to honor Robert Hankla through physics education at Georgia State University. The physics department was a major part of all our lives, and he helped create a lot of good programs.”

By endowing the cash award that bears Robert Hankla’s name, she hopes to continue that legacy. “I hope that the physics students who win this award will look up Robert Hankla and find out what kind of person he was,” she says. “He was an excellent role model for physics students. And this way we can hold up his memory so that he can continue to be a role model, even after he’s passed away.”

Following in Hankla’s Footsteps

Despite his hard work in both the classroom and the lab, Matthew Haddad says he never expected to be honored with the Hankla Award. “When I got the e-mail a few weeks ago from Dr. Michael Crenshaw [chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy], I was kind of startled because I’d never really thought about it,” he says. “Of course, I’m also honored — I’ve heard a lot of wonderful things about the late Dr. Hankla, and it gives me a lot to live up to.”

Haddad describes his research focus as “the smallest scale you can get to. I’ve been studying nuclear physics for most of my time here, since I got through the first couple of intro to physics classes. All my research has been on a nuclear and subnuclear scale — colliding nuclei, particle-accelerator stuff, some of the things that have been going on at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.”

Haddad already has short-term plans for what he’ll do with the award money: “It’s probably going toward some kind of technology investment that I can use in grad school,” he says. “Just now I was actually working on several aspects of research that require working on a computer cluster that has a lot of computers networked together, just to have more processing power. That’s how long some of the calculations can take.”

Between that and his experience teaching labs at Georgia State over the past three and a half years, Haddad is well on the way toward a long-term goal that would make Robert Hankla proud: becoming a physics professor himself. He’ll begin his postgraduate studies — and a teaching position — at the University of Miami this fall.

“I definitely want to keep going for the Ph.D.,” he says. “I’m more interested in the theoretical part of physics, so my ultimate goal is to continue researching the more fundamental aspects. But I’m also interested in becoming an educator, a professor at the college level.”