Mathematician Made It All Add Up
By Libby Noble
Ronald E. Phillips
was a researcher, a mathematician who spent his career teaching
soil physics and researching
and accolades accumu-
lated over a 27-year tenure in the Agronomy Department in the College
of Agriculture. So when Phillips died unexpectedly last Decemberat
age 71, his family, friends, colleagues, and former graduate students
took measures to ensure that his memory and values would endure.
The result is the Ronald E. Phillips Graduate Enrichment Fund, the
proceeds of which will be used for programs in agronomy and related
disciplines, particularly soil science, to enhance the learning
experience for graduate students.
his opportunity to pursue higher education, and then he treasured
his privilege to work professionally in institutions of higher learning,
said Gregory Phillips, son of Ronald Phillips and professor of plant
cellular and molecular genetics at New Mexico State University.
Everyone in our family is well aware of the value Dad placed
on learning and education, and he instilled these values not only
in his children and grandchildren, but also among his students,
Gregory Phillips, two concepts have emerged as possible enrichment
opportunities. One would provide funding for a recognized scientist
to come to the College for a short period of time to present seminars,
mentor graduate students, or conduct career development activities.
The other would support a professional travel engagement by a graduate
student for example, a trip to a leading laboratory or research
location for a few days or weeks to allow students to acquire new
skills or technologies in their respective sub-disciplines.
H. Don Scott,
professor of soil physics at the University of Arkansas and former
Ph.D. student of Ron Phillips, helped establish the enrichment fund.
The idea for such a fund evolved from his own positive experiences
as a student at similar events conducted in the College by invited
that there were some excellent and intense discussions that frequently
occurred between the speaker and the faculty, and excellent career-promoting
advice given by many of the speakers to the graduate students. The
students received long-lasting benefits on how to conduct quality
research and how to attack current research problems.
My hope is that current and future graduate students in the
Agronomy Department at UK will be the ultimate beneficiaries and
that Dr. Phillips life and work will be honored in very special
ways during these events, Scott said.
is remembered as a consummate mathematician, tough instructor, and
good friend. Virgil Quisenberry, now a professor of soil physics
at Clemson University, describes one of his earliest encounters
with Phillips. I began working in N-139 (Ag Science Center,
Phillips lab) in the fall of 1967. I had been working in another
lab but they would only pay $1.00 an hour. I had met Dr. Phillips
earlier in the year and knew his graduate student, so I went by
the lab looking for a better offer. Well, they paid $1.50 so I took
the job, entered the lab, and did not leave for seven years.
In the late spring of my senior year, Dr. Phillips came into
the lab and said he needed a graduate student to work on a research
project for the next two years. He said he had been unable to find
a really good student and he wanted to know if I would be interested,
he said. Despite the implication that Quisenberry was not Phillips
first choice, he accepted the offer, staying on to earn a masters
and Ph.D. under Phillips.
The two continued
to collaborate, even after Quisenberry began working at Clemson.
He made several trips to Clemson, and I spent many days and
nights back in N-139 watching water run through soil, he said.
credits Phillips with helping him formulate his own attitude about
their common field. I dont think I would see soils and
soil physics the way I do if it were not for Dr. Phillips. While
the courses and discussions were immersed in math, they were also
a great attempt to see what was going on in the system, he
said. I think I learned to isolate just what it is I am trying
Scott also was
influenced greatly by Phillips, his major professor. He was
the best applied mathematician I have ever met. During my time at
UK, he convinced me that I should take at least one math course
every semester and that application of mathematics is extremely
helpful in defining research problems in the soil and plant sciences,
he said. I adopted many of his ideas in my own academic program
at the University of Arkansas and am passing his philosophy on the
use of mathematics to my graduate students, Scott said.
Scott and Quisenberry
both note that Phillips took personal interest in his students,
often inviting them to visit in his home at Christmas. The close
relationship they enjoyed as students continued throughout their
professional careers and into Phillips retirement. He
frequently called his former students and inquired about their progress,
both professionally and personally, Scott said.
But the student-teacher
relationship was clearly defined, according to Quisenberry. I
never felt like I was a friend when I was a student, but I was amazed
at how things changed when I graduated and got a job. Overnight
I had become a colleague. Some of his last research effort was spent
on projects that I had proposed, he noted.
Phillips may be gone, but his methods, philosophy, and name live
on in memory of a life committed to excellence in education and