|Transferring to LVC "The Best Thing That Happened to Me": A Q&A with Dr. Edward L. Nickoloff '65
As a teenager, Dr. Edward L. Nickoloff ’65 knew he wanted to study physics. So, after graduating from high school, he began his college career as a physics major at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). But when his mother became ill midway through his college years, the Harrisburg native transferred to the Valley to be closer to home. “Transferring to LVC was the best thing that happened to me,” Nickoloff says. “Dr. Jacob Rhodes ’43 and his physics staff were superb teachers. The environment at LVC was friendly and encouraging and Dr. Rhodes made an effort to get graduate assistantships for many of the physics graduates. Without the encouragement of Dr. Rhodes and financial support, I could have never attended graduate school.”
Nickoloff went on to earn a master’s degree in experimental nuclear physics from the University of New Hampshire and a doctorate in radiation science and medical physics from Johns Hopkins University. He recently retired from a 32-year career as a professor of environmental health sciences-radiation physics with dual appointments at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and its Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics.
Nickoloff is an expert in the science behind the highly sophisticated fields of medical imaging and radiation dosing. He has served as president of the Radiological and Medical Physics Society of New York and chairman of the American College of Medical Physics. He is also the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Upstate New York Medical Physics Society and the prestigious Marvin M.D. Williams Professional Achievement Award from the American College of Medical Physics.
How did you acquire your competitive spirit?
When I was really young, I was seriously injured in a car accident and nearly died. I received special tutoring during this period, which helped me become a good student. I realized that life is fragile and our life span could be short. This made me more religious and made me want to be a good person. I wanted to accomplish something important in life and realized a good education would be the vehicle to this goal. When I was in high school, it was the Sputnik era, with an emphasis on science. There were various grants and fellowships available, which helped fund my education.
What motivates you?
I want to be the best that I can possibly be in my profession and to contribute something useful to society. This has included doing my best to teach undergraduate students, graduate students, and physicians so that they could be successful in life. My mother died of cancer, and I decided I wanted to do something in the medical field to help sick people. My profession was medical physics, so I worked with x-ray machines, ultrasound scanners, and CT and MRI scanners. I wanted our physicians to have the best image quality with the lowest possible radiation doses so that the patients could be diagnosed and treated properly. I also did research with the goal of improving patient care. It was important to me to treat people with respect, integrity, and kindness—this was important to my spiritual character.
What activities, people, or courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?
The most important advantage of LVC was its size—professors could get to know and interact with their students better.
Dr. Jacob Rhodes in the Physics Department encouraged me to pursue graduate studies and assisted me toward earning a fellowship. Dr. O’Donnell [J. Robert, late associate professor emeritus of physics] and Dr. Bissinger [Barnard, late chair and professor of mathematics] taught courses in a very detailed and understandable fashion so that all the students were able to learn.
I also enjoyed chapel and the religious instructions, which strengthened my soul. Character and spiritual foundation are often neglected at many universities. However, these qualities are very important to a successful life.
How has global competition changed your field?
At many universities, the best students are from other countries. In these countries, there are few luxuries and life is difficult. These students know a good education and profession are important to a good life. In the U.S., people often pursue an easy life. Few students enter science, mathematics, and engineering because it is difficult. The bulk of the medical physicists are from other countries. Since science, mathematics, and engineering are critical to a prosperous society, the U.S. is placing itself at a disadvantage by not promoting these professions.
What’s most important to remain competitive in your field?
Education does not end in college or graduate school. Education should be a lifelong pursuit. The most informed individuals are the most successful. The other key ingredients to success are confidence, cooperation, and a good character, which respects people and encourages them to contribute.
How do you prepare physically and mentally for competition?
Although it’s not usually emphasized, being physically fit is important to success. Most of us are not athletes, but we can make sure we exercise and eat nutritious meals. To me, mental fitness means having a good spiritual foundation and a satisfactory relationship with everyone. Mental fitness also involves honesty, compassion, diligence, persistence, encouragement of others, and kindness.
What is your favorite book about competition?
“Alexander the Great,” by Nick McCarty is one of my favorite books for two reasons. First, my father’s side of the family is Macedonian. Second, Alexander conquered much of the known world despite tremendous odds. He fought one battle in which the Persian army was three times larger, and he still won. He prevailed not because of strength, but because of his clever thinking and the loyalty and dedication of his troops. The entire Macedonian army trusted each other and followed the directions of their leader. The troops protected their leader in battles with their lives—they were a team. Despite the odds, they demonstrated mental toughness and loyalty, and they refused to be overwhelmed.
Who is your favorite competitive role model?
I prefer people who are humble, kind, competent, honest, and diligent workers—people on whom a person can depend in time of crisis. My wife, Diane, is such a person and certainly has contributed to my success. Other people whom I admire are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who are contributing a bulk of their wealth to charities. Of my LVC professors, Dr. Jacob Rhodes, is my favorite because of his deep concern for his students. I also admire religious leaders such as Mother Theresa (also a Macedonian, like my father’s family) who spent their entire life helping others.
Do you have a guiding philosophy about competition?
I think success should be earned through honesty, persistence, and diligent efforts. Many people who are average have become successful through persistence in their pursuit of a goal. My daughter, Andrea, has Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism), and she earned a master’s degree from The Pennsylvania State University. I attribute her success to persistent pursuit of her goal.
Which leaders inspire you? Why?
As I stated before, I prefer people who are humble, kind, competent, honest, and diligent workers. I would include presidents Theodore Roosevelt, who created many national parks and animal refuges, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the country through the Great Depression and World War II and created the social security system despite a severe physical disability. These presidents truly loved the U.S. and tried to make it better.
On the religious side, I admire Mother Theresa, who dedicated her life to helping the poor. In medicine, I admire Godfrey Hounsfield, who invented the computed tomography (CT) scanner, and Peter Mansfield, Paul Lauterbur, and Raymond Damadian, who together invented the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, because their inventions have helped diagnose millions of people around the world. They utilized their knowledge of science to the practical benefit of society, and they have been recognized for their contributions by receiving Nobel Prizes in medicine.
What makes LVC competitive?
The main advantage of LVC is its friendly and caring atmosphere, in which professors get to know and encourage their students. It is the personal touch. The emphasis is on morals, character, and learning. It is not the impersonal and "cut-throat" competitive environment that is found at many other leading universities. I really enjoyed my time at LVC and learned my subject material well.
What advice would you give to current LVC students?
I would tell LVC students not to waste the opportunities available to them. They should treat the classroom courses as the foundation for the rest of their lives, because the skills they learn and their approach to their tasks will be important to their future. The sports, club activities, and social functions should be enjoyed and will be well remembered in the future.
Live your life in a manner so that you will be proud of what you do. Treat friends and faculty with respect, kindness, and integrity. Your friends, your approach to solving tasks, and the personal character that you develop at LVC will be some of biggest benefits from your time at LVC.