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Winter 2024

The Professor Ralph Lefler Memorial Scholarship Endowment:

Scholarship honoring professor, created by students to help students

Story by Cheryl Pierce

Once you’ve reached a higher step, you reach back and help the next person up. That’s the Boilermaker way. One shining example of this is the legacy of Professor Ralph W. Lefler and the endowment created in his honor by his students that began helping current Boilermakers two years ago. 

Professor Ralph W. Lefler’s education began in a one room eight-grade schoolhouse in rural Indiana.  Through his tenacity, he elevated his own education which enabled him to be a Professor of Physics at Purdue University. He described the teachers he encountered in his early education as good, earnest people and noted that his interest in physics grew out of a science class in his high school.

His passion for education educators allowed him to take charge of a National Science Foundation (NSF) program that ran through 1974 called the Master’s Degree Physics Summer Program. Lefler ran this program through 1971 and his input benefited roughly 200 Physics Alumni. The summer program recognized that high school science teachers needed more education and resources with specific regard to physics. Lefler retired in August of 1971 and passed away in June of 1995, but his immeasurable impact lives on through his students. And now, that impact is being passed to the next generation of Boilermakers.

A group of students from the Master’s Degree Physics Summer Program wanted to honor their mentor and friend so they started the Professor Ralph Lefler Memorial Scholarship Endowment so that Lefler’s legacy would be impacting students at Purdue in perpetuity.  This endowment allows for scholarships to be given to students in the department of Physics and Astronomy who have an interest in and focus on teaching physics. 

The endowment began giving scholarships in Fall of 2022 and so far has been given four times to Boilermakers that aspire to bring their love of physics to the next generation. Alan Wright (Fall 2022 and Spring 2023), Benjamin D. Simon (Fall 2022), and Ethan Pinarski (Fall 2023).

Pinarski is a current senior undergraduate studying Applied Physics. He will earn his Bachelor of Science this year. In addition to his studies, he is active in the Purdue Society of Physics Students, Purdue Astronomy Club, and can often be found working with Physics and Astronomy outreach to help K-12 students foster their own love of science.

“Receiving the Lefler award really solidified that the work I am doing is having an impact,” says Pinarski. “When I got the award in 2023, I had been doing outreach with the Physics and Astronomy Department's Outreach Coordinator, Dr. Sederberg, for two years in a multitude of programs and projects he has been running. This award, and my time as an outreach volunteer, have helped me understand the importance of outreach on all levels, from kids to adults. While I one day aspire to be a professor, my immediate teaching goals after Purdue will remain in outreach. I love giving these learning opportunities to students, and I will continue to do so wherever I end up.”

Alan Wright has received this scholarship and is currently student teaching at an area high school. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in 2022 and is pursuing his Master’s Degree at Purdue in Science Education with an expected graduation date of 2024.

“I didn’t decide to be a K-12 educator until my junior year, but as an undergraduate I had several great teaching experiences that helped me make that decision,” says Wright. “I loved working as a teaching assistant for PHYS 172 and 272 and also helping Dave Sederberg with physics outreach like Saturday Morning Astrophysics at Purdue. For me, the Lefler Award stood for this involvement in the department and was validation from my mentors and colleagues that I was on the right path. I’m currently finishing up my student teaching at Jefferson High School in Lafayette. It has been a wonderful experience, and I hope to have a high school physics teaching position of my own in the fall.”

Another student who has benefited from the award is Benjamin Simon, currently a first year physics PhD student at Purdue who is working as a graduate research assistant under Dr. Miaoyuan Liu. He was one of the first students to receive the award.

“I'm very passionate about teaching and connecting with students, so receiving the Lefler scholarship felt extremely rewarding,” says Simon. “The award renewed and reinvigorated my commitment to giving my current and future students the best education I can provide. My long-term career goal is to be a physics professor so that I can continue working with students while I pursue research. Receiving the Lefler scholarship definitely made me feel like I'm on the right track. After I received my bachelor's degree and began my PhD program, I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for PHYS172H, the introductory mechanics course for 1st-year physics majors. I had an incredible time getting to know these students, guiding them through the course material, and giving them advice on how to navigate undergrad. Now as a research assistant, I continue to work with undergraduate students on various projects, and I hope I continue to have the privilege to work with students in my future positions.”

Benjamin D. Simon, is a first year physics PhD student at Purdue who was one of the first students to receive the Lefler scholarship. He spoke about the impact it made in his life on his LinkedIn profile.



One of Lefler’s students, James Jennings, credits Lefler for changing the course of his professional life. He says that Lefler continued to aid his professional career even after Jennings graduated from the summer program. It was for this reason, Jennings and other students of Lefler came together to honor him with this scholarship endowment. These students said each of their lives were forever changed for the better because of the education they received at Purdue and due to Lefler’s impact. This endowment is open for additional donations. Friends and alumni who would like to add to the endowment and help the next generation of Boilermakers become better teachers, can do so here.