Tale of Academic Rags to Riches

Tale of Academic Rags to Riches

Rourke Professor Bedell rose from poverty to career as a leading research physicist

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Rourke Professor of Physics Kevin Bedell's rise from urban poverty to renown as a research physicist reads like a page from the script of "Good Will Hunting."

Bedell was the only one of 13 children in his blue-collar Queens, NY, family to go to college. So he says he is particularly honored to be named to Boston College's newly established John H. Rourke Chair in Physics, a professorship endowed by the hard work of an Irish-American family in Brighton, a neighborhood much like his own.

"Brighton is like the town I grew up in. It's where I came out of," said Bedell, who pumped gas to put himself through Dowling College on Long Island on the way to becoming a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and then chairman of the BC Physics Department.

Kevin Bedell

"You can come out of the Brightons or the Southies - or Bayside, Queens - and be an academic success," he said. "You have to be persistent and patient and stubborn. I was given plenty of opportunities to fail, but I was too stubborn."

Bedell, who describes his story as a tale of "academic rags to riches," noted the odds were against his becoming a research physicist when he was growing up in a broken home of 11 children abandoned by his father when Bedell was 14. (Two other siblings, he said, had earlier been given up for adoption by his poverty-stricken parents.)

"We were poor as can be," he recalled. "I was 18 before I realized the sheriff wasn't supposed to show up and help you move."

But there had always been books around the house and by age 14, Bedell realized he had an affinity for physics, if not for studying.

After flunking science in his freshman year of college, Bedell became a more serious student and perservered to earn a bachelor's degree in 1971. He earned master's and doctoral degrees from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1972 and 1979, respectively.

In 1986, he began a 10-year stint at the Atomic Testing Labs at Los Alamos, where he led research in an area called "many-body" physics.

Since being named Physics chairman three years ago, Bedell has overseen a revitalization of the department, including an influx of talented new faculty and a new synergy within the department that has energized teaching and research. In 1998-99, the department topped the $1 million mark in external funding for research, a figure Bedell says may double in the coming year.

The department is lobbying to become a national center for research in novel electronic materials, Bedell said. Meanwhile, a hardware upgrade is in the works for the department's super-powered computer system, one of the strongest to be found on a US campus, and Higgins Hall, which Physics shares with the Biology Department, is in the midst of an $80 million renovation.

"This is a place of energy and excitement. There's a sense of optimism here," said Bedell. "The Rourke Professorship caps an incredible year."

As he looks back on how he got to where he is today, Bedell said he wouldn't necessarily want to re-do his early days - but he wouldn't want to change them, either.

"I'm doing what I want to do," said Bedell, who lives in Newton Corner with his wife and their 14-year-old son. "It took a long time to get here and I didn't go the conventional route. But it's an interesting story to tell. It's a good one to tell my son."

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