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APSU junior maintains 4.0 in triple majors; conducts NASA research and devises new math theorem in his "spare time"

5/6/2002
May 6, 2002

On the surface, Chris McMahan looks like typical student. But underneath the oversized t-shirt beats the heart of a Renaissance Man. In addition to maintaining a 4.0 GP A with a triple major in physics, math and art, McMahan tutors high school students, conducts research for a NASA project and recently devised a new mathematical theorem. He also serves as president of Del Square Psi and secretary of Kappa Sigma.

McMahan rejects the idea that his academic schedule marks him as an overachiever. "1 just fell into the triple major," he says. "I started as a physics major and wanted to prepare myself for the doctoral level by taking extra math classes."

Okay. But then why major in art? "I've always loved art," he says. "It's a passion. I started taking sculpture because it's a fun class and a stress reliever."

Though most people see a wide gap between the left-brain-focused study of math and the right-brained dominance required by art, McMahan sees a clear connection.

"With art and sculpture, I have to be imaginative," he says. "That helps with math and physics research projects, requiring me to be creative. With art, you're creating something that hasn't been done before. It's the same with research."

The son of Dr. Becky McMahan, APSU professor of education, McMahan attends APSU on a full scholarship. He began taking classes at APSU during his senior year at Montgomery Central High School.

His days at MCHS began early, with a 7 a.m. class he needed to complete the requirements for high school graduation. Then it was on to Austin Peay, where he was enrolled in eight hours during the fall semester and full time during the spring semester.

Now a full-time student at Austin Peay, he's added altruistic activities to the mix, working with students in the Developmental Studies Program. He tutors six Upward Bound Program students in pre-algebra, algebra I, algebra II and geometry .

McMahan says he gets a sense of pride knowing he's helping others, but it's more than that. "It's preparing me for the future. I want to be a physics professor."

A teaching career was also the impetus for McMahan's volunteering to assist Dr. Jaime Taylor, chair of the physics department, with Tensigrity, a NASA project that will help with future space shuttle launches by whittling down load weights.

"It costs so much per pound to shoot something into space," he says. "Our goal is to create a structure that uses bars and tensioned cables to support large amounts of eight. Composed primarily of cable, they weigh a fraction of what traditional load-bearing structures do, making it more cost effective to shoot them into space."

The structure will be built by this summer and sent to NASA for testing.

In the remainder of his "spare time," McMahan cooked up a new mathematical theorem, one that provides a more direct way to solve problems. He presented the theorem during a joint meeting of the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society in Atlanta.

"This was a mind-blower for me," McMahan says. "It taught me to think about math objectively and to consider math on a more applied level than what is taught in the classroom." How does he juggle all these responsibilities successfully? "With a lot of late hours and
early mornings," he says with a smile.

He hasn't always been this motivated, he admits. Though he's always enjoyed learning, elementary and high school just didn't do it for him. But with his mom being a college professor, he wasn't allowed to be a shirker.

"Mom's always been there to make me do what I knew I needed to do," he says. "She used every method to push me to learn. She posed problems and things I needed to work on."

He also credits numerous mentors for the influence they've had in his life and all they've taught him. Among them are Taylor, Dr. Samuel Jator, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science; Dr. Ronald Gupton, professor of mathematics and computer science; Lynda Gupton, secretary 2 in the department of physics; Dr. Spencer Buckner, assistant professor of physics; Dr. Alex King, assistant professor of physics; Dr. Pei Xiong-Skiba, associate professor of physics; and Gregg Schlanger, associate professor of art.

"They've all been there to help me and to encourage me when I'm down. They're all good teachers. A good student is nothing without a good teacher."

After graduating from APSU, McMahan plans to attend graduate school and earn a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville or the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

His advice to other students is to get involved with as many disciplines as possible. "APSU is Tennessee's designated liberal arts university. Students should take advantage of that."

Despite his academic success, McMahan doesn't boast about his accomplishments. He says the challenges he faces are no different from those faced by other students in everyday life. He's just learned to adapt.

"I'm actually a very disorganized person. I have my own order, which is hard to see unless you're me."