Assistant Professor Jolene Johnson Armstrong.


The Heart of Life

Physics, like music, is at the root of everything, says this new viola-playing professor.

By Jolene Johnson Armstrong, Ph.D., as told to Christina M. Cavitt


In her first year as an assistant professor in St. Catherine University's mathematical sciences and physics department, Jolene Johnson Armstrong is bringing physics to life through music. A violist with the Twin Cities' Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Armstrong is among a small number of female physics professors in the country. Her youth and contemporary attire contrast sharply with the stereotype of physicists as "old men with bad haircuts and dorky glasses," she jokes. But make no mistake: Armstrong is a serious woman of science and a consummate educator.

I love physics and music, and have for as far back as I remember. I was born and raised in Duluth, on the edge of Lake Superior. That's where I became curious about the nature of motion. In fifth grade, I started playing viola, which piqued my interest in the nature of sound. Physics was a way for me to explore both.

I double-majored in music and honors physics at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, and then went to the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities for a Ph.D. in physics focusing on biophysics. There were plenty of women in biology and chemistry, but I was often the only female in physics classes — and the only one in my class to make it through the Ph.D. program.

In graduate school I focused on my research in viral assembly, using the physics techniques of fluorescence fluctuation spectroscopy and microfluidics. Basically, I genetically engineered viral proteins so they contained a fluorescent protein — kind of like a light bulb — and then I used statistics to count the number of proteins in a virus. I am now bringing this research to St. Kate's as I work with students to design, fabricate and test microfluidic devices for single-cell culture.

I taught at the U of M, the University of St. Thomas and Minneapolis Community & Technical College before joining the St. Catherine faculty in 2012. Now, I get to teach both my passions in a new course this semester called "The Physics of Music."

All of my students are women and clearly apprehensive the first day of class. One of my goals is to assuage their fears and remove the myth that "girls shouldn't be interested in physics and engineering." Like the CSJ professors who came before me, I do everything I can to spark student interest and help them understand the physics at the heart of life. I use everyday items like balls and tires to demonstrate motion. I play my viola to introduce sound waves, chordal structures and how the human ear processes vibrations into pitches.

Not everybody will love physics after taking my class, but at least they won't be afraid of it. Labs include small-group interaction that explores answers to questions like, "What happens to speedometer readings if you put the wrong diameter tires on a car?" They gather in small groups, leaders emerge, and, eventually, everybody agrees on correct answers.

We're reviving the physics minor at St. Catherine and hope to offer more upper-level courses by fall semester of 2013. We are also exploring adding a biophysics minor, which would be unique to the ACTC schools. A robust physics department with active biophysics research will bolster related departments, such as biology, chemistry and math.

Favorite Places

Favorite Places

I came across the Cloister Walk one day when I was walking to Campus Ministry from Derham Hall. It felt so beautiful and peaceful, and people are so friendly in this space. They smile and say hello. I try to pass through here every day.

It makes reaching my bus a lot quicker —¬†and in the winter it makes you feel great: You don't have to be in freezing-cold temperatures.

— Mariamu Conteh SP '14, public health major