tritt stands in front of bell

Terry Tritt, professor and chair of physics and astronomy, was named the 2017 recipient of the Class of ’39 Award for Excellence.
Image Credit: College of Science

CLEMSON – Twenty years ago, Terry Tritt taught his first class as a Clemson faculty member. It was a general physics course, packed with hundreds of undergraduate science and engineering students – and when Tritt cracked a joke, his audience wasn’t moved.

“Everybody was looking at me real seriously. Nobody was smiling. And I thought: ‘What have I done? What am I doing here?’ ” Tritt said.

Prior to that day, Tritt had spent 11 years as a Department of Defense scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, working on a foundation in physics that he received – from start (B.A., 1980) to finish (Ph.D., 1985) – at Clemson University.

Tritt’s time at the Naval Research Lab fulfilled his desire to see other places and experience new heights and challenges, but when the call came in 1996 to fill a faculty position in Clemson’s department of physics and astronomy, Tritt couldn’t say no.

Twenty years later, Tritt is the chair of the department of physics and astronomy and has a long list of shining achievements, culminating in his being named the 2017 recipient of the Class of ’39 Award for Excellence.

He joins a group of 28 other honorary Class of ’39 members whose contributions are representative of “the highest achievements of service to the student body, university and community, state or nation.”

“I just can’t tell you how personally gratifying it is to have won this award,” Tritt said. “This is, in my opinion, the highest honor as a Clemson faculty member, to be elected to the elite group of Class of ’39 members.”

Tritt was selected for the award by the Faculty Senate at its Nov. 14 meeting, and will receive the award at the upcoming December commencement ceremony.

Tritt’s name will be engraved in the Class of ’39 Bell Tower in the Carillion Gardens in a ceremony slated for January. He will also receive a monetary award equal to the value of $5,000 in 1989 – the year the Award for Excellence was established.

Dubbed by 2003 award winner Kinly Sturkie as the “Clem-FUN” group, the Class of ’39 members hold a reunion every year to honor their newest member and remember those who have passed away. Tritt will be officially inducted into the group at its next reunion, scheduled for June 8, 2018 in Kresge Hall at the Clemson University Outdoor Lab.

Tritt said that if he had to choose between becoming a Class of ’39 member or being elected to a national academy, he’d rather have the former.

“It’s just that special to me,” Tritt said. “After getting my education from here and becoming an alumni professor, then becoming chair, now this – I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’ve achieved more than I could have ever imagined when I was an undergrad walking the halls of Kinard.”

In research, Tritt helped pioneer the field of thermoelectrics, a renewable energy that turns heat into electricity. He’s graduated 21 doctoral students in physics – seven of whom were women – and taught hundreds of undergraduates in classrooms across campus. In 2009, Tritt was named an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy – one of 18 such members at Clemson – and became chair of the department in 2016. All the while, his work has helped put Clemson’s name on the map in areas such as materials physics and condensed matter physics in energy-related materials.

tritt and student peer over lab equipment

Physicist Terry Tritt works in his lab with students.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

When asked what his own crowning moments were from his time at Clemson, Tritt recalled the students he’s taught and mentored over the years, both undergraduate and graduate.

“My most memorable, special moments at Clemson have been walking down the aisle to put a hood on one of the Ph.D. students that I’ve graduated. I feel so close to them – it’s like an extended family, and I want to see them go on and do well.”

Tritt is especially proud of the female doctoral students he’s graduated, given that only about 10 percent of Ph.D. scientists in physics are female.

“I graduated well above that number,” Tritt said. “Female students I’ve advised have always felt that there was a blind eye to gender in my group. Much was expected, and you did as much, so they felt very welcomed, and I’m proud of that. I even gave one away at her wedding.”

The first grant he ever received, the first paper he ever got published, and an invited review on the state of thermoelectrics – published this fall in the journal Science – are other notable moments for Tritt. But in the end, it always comes back to mentoring students for him.

“This is probably from my DOD background, but you know, you should always have a mission statement,” Tritt said. “So in my lab, we put up a mission statement, and we accomplished the things in it. We published in the most significant journals, collaborated with some of the most important people in the field, and we were highly regarded in what we did. Putting it up there, putting it in writing, and then accomplishing those things – students are really proud of that. I think that’s probably going to be the thing I miss the most; the mentoring process is just really special.”

After nearly 30 years of time spent learning and working at Clemson University, Tritt plans to retire in Summer 2018.

“One of my colleagues emailed me to congratulate me on the Class of ’39 Award, and all they said was one word: ‘sweet.’ And I think that sums it up. To get this award and join other leading faculty in the Class of ’39 here, it’s sweet.”