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In Memoriam: Stephen Jasperson, Longtime Physics Professor

Described as “pumped about physics,” the devoted teacher served as department head and secretary of the faculty

October 14, 2016
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Steve Jasperson, who taught physics at WPI for 39 years, died Oct. 5, 2016, in Plymouth, Minn., after a long struggle with supranuclear palsy (PSP). He was 75. Described as “pumped about physics,” his devotion to teaching and to his field inspired colleagues and earned praise from students.

Jasperson grew up in central Wisconsin, where he worked in his family’s cranberry marsh and developed a deep love of the outdoors that carried through his life. Educated in a two-room schoolhouse in grade school, he went on to become valedictorian of his class at Port Edwards High School. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he met his wife, the former Ann Eckstein.

The couple moved to New Jersey, where Steve earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in physics at Princeton University. After completing postdoctoral research at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he joined the WPI faculty in 1970 as an assistant professor. He rose to associate professor in 1975, and was granted tenure as full professor in 1992. He served as department head from 1984 to 1994, and also served a term as secretary of the faculty.

At WPI, Jasperson was recognized as a key contributor to the quality of the first year experience. He was known for devoting time to help students master key concepts and prepare for exams, both in and outside the classroom. He taught a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses, but his specialty was solid-state physics, with research that included optical detection of plasma oscillations in metals and semiconductors.

For a time, he co-taught an undergraduate seminar on electronic music, along with music professors from Clark University and the College of the Holy Cross, as part of the Tri-college Group for Electronic Music. His role was to bring in the scientific perspective to help students understand the physical attributes of what they were hearing. Jasperson’s own musical endeavors included singing with the Worcester Chorus and playing the piano.

Through the Tri-College Group, which included concerts and grant writing, the professors were able to equip electronic music studios at their respective colleges. Jasperson reached out to WPI alumnus Alan R. Pearlman ’48, inventor of the ARP synthesizer, and was able to add four of Pearlman’s machines to WPI’s studio in Olin Hall.

“Sound is something we all take for granted,” he said in a 1988 WPI Journal article about the unusual collaboration. Pointing out that sound is also fundamental to communication and in monitoring conditions around us, he would tell his students, “I hope you never hear sound in the same way again.”

Jasperson joined colleagues at lunchtime in runs with the WPI Footpounders. When his research took him to the California desert, he enjoyed hiking and backpacking with his family. He summited Mt. Whitney four times, the last to celebrate his 60th birthday.

In 2001 Jasperson was honored with the WPI Board of Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Teaching. Nominations from students and alumni described him as a skilled instructor who genuinely loved physics and enjoyed sharing his enthusiasm with students. “He’s pumped about physics,” said one student. “His door is always open,” said another. A faculty nominator expressed admiration for Jasperson’s demonstrations of fundamental principles and confessed, “I have regularly stolen his ideas in my own teaching.”

Jasperson retired from WPI as professor emeritus in 2008, but continued to share his love of physics with senior citizens, teaching courses in the WISE (Worcester Institute for Senior Education) program.

He leaves Ann, his wife of 51 years, two daughters, and two grandchildren. His father, a brother, and a sister also survive him.

A memorial service will take place on Saturday, May 20, 2017, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester, 90 Holden Street, in Worcester, Mass.  Visitation will be held starting at 2 p.m., and the service will begin at 3 p.m.

The family has established a legacy fund at CurePSP to support research and awareness of PSP and related disorders at www.curepsp.org/jasperson. Memorial donations may also be made to Struthers Parkinson Center (www.parknicollet.com/specialtycenters/struthers-parkinsons-center/giving).

- By Joan Killough-Miller