Greg DiLisi ’83 prefers to avoid the limelight. However, he spends much of his time as the center of attention at the head of the class.
As associate professor of science education at John Carroll University, the lifelong science buff has made a career of getting undergraduates excited about the sub-ject, too, particularly physics.
“Physics is hard, it’s difficult. Teaching is hard, it’s difficult. But it’s rewarding,” DiLisi says. “I like the big picture stuff. I like telling kids about why you have to learn a topic or how it fits into the history of what we’re talking about.”
DiLisi’s students don’t just learn in the classroom, either. Last summer, some of the lucky few learned in the sky – in NASA’s “Vomit Comet.” The term “Vomit Comet” tends to make ears perk up quickly. For DiLisi’s physics students, however, the opportunity to experience it was much more appetizing than it sounds.
“It’s called the ‘Vomit Comet’ because astronauts go up in it umpteen times in a row,” DiLisi says of the NASA airplane that freefalls for about 30 seconds.
The plane, which follows a 10,000-foot arc up then down, is used to train astronauts to adapt to weightlessness in space. But for one week every July, it’s home to Microgravity University, when undergrads from a handful of schools around the country perform science experiments in flight.
DiLisi took students from JCU and Baldwin-Wallace University to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for two flights of experimentation. Their goal?To determine how stable strands of liquid are and to learn how they behave in zero gravity. DiLisi and the students will analyze their data this summer and hope to publish their findings in a peer-review physics journal.
DiLisi inherited his love of science from his father, Richard, an electrician. When DiLisi was a boy, they watched moon launches and dabbled in electrical projects together. “My dad’s job was very scientific, and I enjoyed doing the electrical stuff with him,” DiLisi remembers. “All of my science fair projects were electrical contraptions. If you trace back what got me hooked on science, it was always those things he was devising for our science fair projects.”
Today, DiLisi is carrying on that family legacy with his 9-year-old daughter, Carmela, the center of his world. “We do a lot of science stuff together, and when she understands something, she delights in it,” he says. “She’s the guinea pig for all the experiments I do in class. If she says, ‘Dad, this is stupid,’ I know I won’t do it in class.”
If DiLisi’s passion for science started and continues at home, it was nurtured by one of the world’s most renowned astronomers, at Cornell University, where DiLisi majored in engineering physics.
“Carl Sagan was my teacher at Cornell,” DiLisi says. “I had him for my senior astronomy seminar. It was his first year back teaching undergrads since he had made the TV series ‘Cosmos.’ He was definitely my most influential teacher at Cornell.”
At Gilmour, it was DiLisi’s English and Latin teacher, Rich Grejtak, who made the strongest impression. DiLisi never forgot Grejtak’s resounding message.
“He always taught about pursuing things for the sake of it,” DiLisi recalls. “Like, there’s a beauty in understanding the subject itself, not just for what it can do for you. Mr. Grejtak left a mark on me. His take-home message was always, ‘There is an inherent reward in studying any subject.’ He was, to me, the closest thing to a college professor at Gilmour.”
When DiLisi’s own students ask, “Why do we need to know this?” he’s quick to respond, “Who cares why you need to know it? Just enjoy understanding it.”
Outside of the classroom, DiLisi indulges in his favorite pastime, baseball, whenever time allows. “I’ve always been a baseball junkie,” he confesses. DiLisi, who plays in a summer league, shared his passion for baseball with his daughter during a stop at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. last summer.
Along the way, they stopped at Cornell in nearby Ithaca, N.Y. “It was the first time I had been back to Cornell since I graduated,” DiLisi says. “I thought, ‘Boy, I wish I’d had just a little more fun when I was here.’ You don’t know it ‘til it’s past you.”
But as much as DiLisi enjoys baseball and science, Carmela is his number one focus in life.
“My daughter comes first,” he says. “People talk about balancing work and home, I don’t balance it at all. My daughter wins out every time.”
Where do you feel most comfortable?
Teaching a science class or in the left side of the infield
What’s your favorite movie?
“The Pride of the Yankees”
Are you a morning person or night owl?
What would be your ultimate dream?
To go into space
Whom do you most admire?
My parents and grandparents