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A Transformative Gift

It was 1964 when Elizabeth (Liz) Miller became the second woman to graduate from Lebanon Valley College (LVC) with a physics degree. She thought about going to graduate school but postponed her application for a year, working for the U.S. Navy to help cover the cost before coming to Knoxville to start her studies. Now, with a generous bequest to the UT Physics Department, she and her husband, Jim Bains, have ensured not only financial support for graduate students, but also more diverse representation in the graduate program.

Elizabeth Bains

Elizabeth Bains*

Starting in fall 2022, the Dr. Elizabeth M. Bains and Dr. James A. Bains, Jr. Graduate Fellowship provides a stipend for excellent graduate students who also contribute in meaningful ways to the department's diversity of gender, nationality, economic status, race or ethnicity. Incoming graduate students are invited to apply.

Getting Serious in Ultrasonics

Liz was drawn to UT because of the physics department's connection to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Initially she planned to pursue either atomic or nuclear physics, but changed her mind soon after arriving, deciding on ultrastonics instead. That proved to be a pivotal decision in more ways than one. It's where fellow student Jim Bains came into the picture.

"We met in the ultrasonics lab," she told fellow LVC alumnus Art Ford as part of an oral history project. "Well, got serious in the ultrasonics lab."

Liz finished a master's degree in 1968 and a PhD in 1972. She and Jim married, and he graduated with a doctoral degree in 1974. She joked with Ford that she "was better at working with the machine shop than (Jim) was, so I helped him build his equipment."

Jim and Elizabeth Bains student days at UT

Laszlo Adler (with lab notebook) during his UT days, surrounded by, from left, John Cantrell, Mack Breazeale, Ken Bolland, Jim Bains, Mike Torbett, and Elizabeth (Miller) Bains.

John Cantrell (BS, 1965; PhD, 1976) and Laszlo Adler (PhD, 1969) were part of the ultrasonics program as well, and both remember Liz (or Betsy, as she was also known) and Jim. Cantrell recalls Liz as "very intelligent, kind, generous, and always willing to lend a hand. She was a gifted teacher, highly regarded by her students."

She also had a myriad of interests, including the outdoors. Once during a camping trip in the Smokies, Cantrell, his wife Davie, and Liz encountered a mama bear and her curious cub, who decided to get a closer look at the humans. The mother charged, and the group made loud clanging noises with their dining utensils and backed away.

"Admittedly, the slow backing gave way to an acceleration as we approached the shelter and scampered into the upper bunks, but the tactic worked," Cantrell explained. "The cub scampered off and mama bear gave up the harassment. So, as the song goes, it pays to know when to hold them and when to fold them."

Adler also has fond memories of both Liz and Jim.

"I felt a connection with (Liz) not only as a competent researcher but also as a reliable, responsible and caring friend," he said.

His family shared dinners with her and Jim, and Liz even babysat for the Adlers' small children on occasion. He also recognized the couple's physics acumen.

"Her scientific work on measurements of ultrasonic parameters in the critical regions of mixtures gained international recognition," he said of Liz. "Jim … was probably the best expert in electronics whom I've known at that time. Not only his knowledge was instrumental developing new research methods in the field of ultrasonics, but he developed some timing instruments for local lawyers in Knoxville."

Witnessing History and Securing the Future

Shruti Agarwal

Shruti Agarwal

With degrees in hand, the couple spent a few years in Mississippi and ultimately settled in Texas, with Liz taking a job at NASA in 1988 and Jim working in the oil industry designing equipment. Liz saw every launch of the space shuttle and described the program as her "personal history." She helped create software for the computer simulators used to train astronauts and was in charge of analyzing the assembly of the International Space Station. She retired from NASA in 2013 after earning numerous honors. In 2015 LVC presented Liz with the Distinguished Alumnus Award. Sadly, she passed away the following year, and Jim died in 2020. Yet that was hardly the end of their contributions to physics.

Five decades after they "got serious," their hard work and generosity supports outstanding young scientists who'll draw on their diverse backgrounds and experience to strengthen physics research and scholarship. The Bains' bequest, the largest gift ever made to the department, has already made a meaningful difference in the place their story began.

Shruti Agarwal is the first Bains Fellow, joining the graduate program in fall 2022 and working with Professor Cristian Batista in theoretical condensed matter physics. She earned her integrated BS-MS degree from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Mohali, India.

"The Bains Fellowship offered me the opportunity to start early on my graduate research along with my studies, making the offer from UT stand out," she said. "It has given me greater freedom to choose the research I want to pursue without worrying about the financial aspects of it. I am grateful and happy to be at the receiving end of this fellowship."


*Elizabeth Bains Photo Credit: Nick Gould, LVC. With gratitude to the Voices of Lebanon Valley College Oral History Project and The Valley Magazine.

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