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Released April 6, 2004

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG -- Scientifically speaking, The University of Southern Mississippi's Dr. Joe Whitehead is a jack-of-all trades. Of course, as the new associate dean for the College of Science and Technology (COST), Whitehead can count that as a plus.

Boasting more than 3,000 students in a college with about 170 faculty, COST runs the gamut of disciplines, from biology, chemistry and math to marine science, engineering and criminal justice.

"It's a challenge to get my arms around all the different departments, but it's one that I enjoy," said Whitehead, 43, who recently completed a four-year stint as chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Replacing him is Dr. Chris Winstead, who currently serves as the interim chair.

Early on, Whitehead showed aptitude and eagerness in several scientific branches. But after working at Stennis Space Center the summer after his first year in college, he decided physics moved him most.

"What I like about physics and science in general, is that the more you learn, the more you understand you don't know. And the more you study, the more you have to develop knowledge in other disciplines," said Whitehead, who also has experience in computers and electronics.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the intellectual patchwork of COST's disciplines is part of the job's appeal. While his current administrative role requires him to oversee various academic issues in the college, such as accreditation and program development, Whitehead does a lot more than just push papers. He can also be found in the classroom and the lab, his shirtsleeves rolled up, calibrating instruments and running experiments with his advanced physics students.

"The college is extremely fortunate to have a scientist and professor as qualified as Dr. Joe Whitehead to serve as associate dean," COST Dean Dr. Rex Gandy said. "Over the past few years he has successfully led the Department of Physics

and Astronomy as it substantially increased in research productivity. Dr. Whitehead's past experience as chair will be very valuable as he assumes his new duties with the college."

Samwel Sekwao, a senior physics major from Tanzania, said he likes the idea of having a seasoned researcher and administrator teaching undergraduate courses. "He brings a lot of experience into the lab," Sekwao said.

Originally from Picayune, where he played basketball and tight end on the Maroon Tide football team, Whitehead walked on at Delta State and earned a football scholarship. After winding up in physics, quite by accident, he spent the better part of the 1980s pursuing advanced physics degrees outside his home state.

Asked once by a friend why so many people of fame and consequence seemed to hail from Mississippi, Whitehead had the right answer - as usual.

"It's because we export the bulk of our talent, our best and brightest," he replied. Of course, he should know: He was once one of them.

Whitehead spent the early part of his career at Kent State, where he earned master's and doctoral degrees in physics. There he researched liquid crystal materials, used today in many computer monitors and wristwatches. He also spent a year as a researcher at the Georgia Tech Research Institute before coming home in 1990 to join the staff at Southern Miss.

As an African-American associate dean at Southern Miss, Whitehead wants to help others interested in science have high-paying job opportunities here in Mississippi, opportunities that were not available to him 20 years ago.

"In the future, I see this university as a leader in Mississippi in science and technology," Whitehead said. "COST was formed in the '70s, and we're seeing the first generation of those faculty starting to retire. Right now, we're trying to identify about 25 new faculty, that second generation, who can really take us to the next level."

One of those - Winstead - has already been identified and tapped to replace Whitehead as chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. "Dr. Chris Winstead has an outstanding track record in physics teaching and research excellence," Gandy said.

Since coming to Southern Miss, Winstead has done an outstanding job in leading the Eagle Eyes research project, funded by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Gandy said. "He is well prepared to assume his new role as acting chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy," he said.

A 1983 graduate of Hattiesburg High, Winstead got bachelor's degrees in physics and mathematics in 1988 from Southern Miss. He received his doctorate in physics from Georgia Tech in 1995.

Winstead said that as the Department of Physics and Astronomy currently recruits new faculty, the focus is "to attract people who are skilled researchers with a strong interest in involving students in their research."

"In addition to evaluating a candidate's potential for excellence in teaching, we also ask each applicant if they are willing to help grow our departmental outreach to schools in south Mississippi," Winstead said.

For more information about the Department of Physics and Astronomy, contact (601) 266-4883.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM