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Top Tennessee science students turn down full scholarships, choose APSU

September 10, 2002

Two of the state's most outstanding science students turned their backs on hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money to study at Austin Peay State University.

Although the two young men, Kenneth Robertson of Dickson County and Justin Roper of Sparta, had seen each other occasionally during statewide high school science competitions, they first met in the elevator of a Detroit hotel where each was staying as a participant in the 2000 International Science and Engineering Fair.

With similar interests in science, athletics, service and leadership, the two clicked. Now they are roommates in APSU's Harvill Hall, a special residence hall for students participating in any of the University's enrichment programs.

Robertson, son of Dr. and Mrs. Ron Robertson of Dickson County, turned down $238,000 in scholarships, including a scholarship to Vanderbilt University and a “full-ride,” $100,000 scholarship to Centre College, Kentucky's top private liberal arts college. The freshman plans to double major in physics and chemistry and minor in mathematics.

His father, who is an associate professor of chemistry at APSU, said, “Kenneth and I have been doing research together on polyphosphate hydrolysis for five years, and his being at APSU gives us a chance to finish and publish this research together.

“More important to me, however, is that he is a young man of faith who wants to use his abilities to their fullest. I am proud he has chosen APSU as the university he feels can best serve his academic, social and spiritual goals.”

Given his background, it's not surprising Robertson's career goal is to be a university professor. “I feel called to teach, and I love research in a university environment,” Robertson says. “Maybe I'll take Dad's place here someday.”

Because Robertson has spent time on campus since he was in a freshman in high school, APSU is a second home to him. Did that factor into his decision to enroll here?

“Well, I knew the faculty already, and they are excellent teachers doing excellent research,” Robertson said. He also noted that, at most universities, undergraduate students are only allowed to look at sophisticated, expensive equipment, such as a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) device. No touching.

“I've been using the NMR here since I was in ninth grade,” he said.

In addition to outstanding science faculty and facilities, Robertson chose Austin Peay because of what he calls “flexibility.” He has many interests outside academics, and he realized he could enjoy a higher degree of participation in all of them at APSU.

Robertson was named to the University's Standing Committee for Technology. As a member of the prestigious President's Emerging Leaders Program, he is taking “Introduction to the Study of Leadership,” taught by Dr. Sherry Hoppe, APSU president.

“Where else would a freshman be taught by the president of his university?” Robertson asks.

Justin Roper, the son of John and Karen Roper of Sparta, is a sophomore, majoring in physics. He turned down a full scholarship to Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, near his hometown.

Like his roommate, Roper cites flexibility as a factor in his decision to enroll at APSU, saying he knew he wanted to engage in various extracurricular activities.

Last spring, Roper was elected to serve as a SGA senator. He is a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon and was chosen to be a Governors Ambassador. As such, he will work closely with Hoppe in her capacity as official host for APSU.

Roper, like Robertson, is a member of the President's Emerging Leaders Program (PELP). This semester as part of his PELP requirements, he is taking the class, “Ethics in Leadership,” taught by Dr. Bruce Speck, vice president for academic affairs.

“There's not another program anywhere like PELP,” Roper says. “It's great.”

Although he is enjoying the full college experience, Roper's primary reason for choosing APSU was academic excellence. “We have an excellent physics department here,” he says. “This past summer immediately after my freshman year, I worked on a NASA project with Dr. Jaime Taylor. It was an amazing experience.

“Being at Austin Peay, well, let's say I'm at the right place at the right time.”

Although Roper has not made a firm career decision, he's not worried. “I'm getting a good liberal arts education that will give me a well-rounded background. I plan to draw from that.

“Plus physics is such a fundamental science. It can open so many doors. Right now, I'm just looking for the right door.”

Taylor is confident both Roper and Robertson have bright futures, regardless of the door each goes through. “These are two of the brightest—and nicest—young men I've ever known,” he said. “Although our faculty and the new science building played a part in their decision to enroll here, other factors were important.

“Kenneth is an impressive person,” Taylor said. “During high school, he won many major state science competitions and went to the national competitions on a regular basis. On the other hand, he also placed third in his high school district tennis tournament.”

According to Taylor, Roper also enjoys athletics, having played soccer in high school. Speaking of Roper, Taylor said, “Justin is highly motivated. This past summer, he and another of our students, Chris McMahan, built a tensegrity structure that was delivered to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center last month. NASA officials were delighted.”

In fact, the deputy director of the structural vibrations group at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center indicated a strong interest in offering both Roper and McMahan summer jobs at NASA next year.

Recently, Roper and Robertson invited Dr. Sherry Hoppe, APSU president, to join them in their dorm room for a dinner, and she accepted. Falafel, a Middle Eastern health food, is on the menu. Is cooking exotic meals a shared hobby? “Not especially,” Robertson says. “We're just fun guys who like to do spontaneous things.”

With such inventive and enthusiastic students as Robertson and Roper enrolled in APSU science programs, it's obvious not all the stars can be seen in the new planetarium.