The apartment Jim Kaskas and his fellow physics students shared in the ’60s was situated in the shadow of the Old Main clock tower on Wayne State University’s campus. Though much has changed in the subsequent six decades, the clock tower continues to welcome new generations of physics and astronomy students to make an impact in their own time. With a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from Wayne State, Kaskas knows the kind of support students need to help them learn and discover — and has found a way to provide it that will last for generations.
Since childhood, Jim has been fascinated by the universe’s fundamental particles: electrons and quarks. Much like those foundational building blocks, his longstanding philanthropic support of Wayne State’s Department of Physics and Astronomy has been essential to the success of the department’s dynamic students, faculty and research.
For nearly a decade, the Kaskas Annual Scholarship has propelled physics master’s students toward admission to the physics doctoral program, the Kaskas Endowed Scholarship has uplifted undergraduate physics students, and the Kaskas Annual Research Fund has fueled faculty and student research.
Building on this comprehensive groundwork, Jim recently committed a future gift of $2.3 million through an IRA beneficiary designation, which will replenish existing support of students and researchers and create three new funds.
Giving back matters
In creating the Kaskas Department of Physics and Astronomy Endowed Graduate Student Support Fund, Jim hopes to make it possible for graduate students to devote themselves to summer research without needing to teach or take a full-time job to cover living expenses. The Kaskas Department of Physics and Astronomy Endowed Support Fund will offer flexible support for the department and provide much-needed funding for equipment purchases, travel and unexpected needs. The department will also reinforce its roster of high-achieving professors through the Kaskas Endowed Distinguished Faculty Fellowship.
Jim said his reason for donating so significantly to his alma mater is quite simple: philanthropy financed his own Wayne State education.
“All three of my degrees were at Wayne State University, and I was helped with money during that time with about $300 a month. Back then, $300 was quite a bit of money, and I didn’t have to work while studying,” Kaskas said. “I wanted to give back and help students like I was helped.”
When decades-old stock investments earned strong returns, Jim knew right where the money should go. But in addition to providing scholarship support, the retired professor felt that donating to the Department of Physics and Astronomy in general would also make a significant difference in student education and research, and make Wayne State an attractive destination for future physicists.
Ed Cackett, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said the use of varying funds will impact future students immensely.
“Not only will it support undergraduate and graduate students year on year, but it will also provide support for faculty research and flexible funds we can use where needs arise in the department,” Cackett said. “We are grateful for Jim’s foresight in creating this transformational gift.”
Jim said he especially realized the value of flexible funds when he heard that scholarship recipient Kraig Andrews, M.S. ’17, Ph.D. ’20 needed to rent lab space at a neighboring university while the department’s own lab underwent flood repairs. Andrews said the funding enabled his team to efficiently obtain thousands of dollars to rent the necessary lab space.
“He was supporting me on two ends, with a scholarship that allowed me to focus on my dissertation without having to be a teaching assistant or do anything like that, and then he was also supporting research funds for our lab, which ranged from $5,000 to $10,000.”
Pursuing a master’s in physics is often a step students take while pursuing their true goal: admission to a competitive physics doctoral program. Veronica Verkest ’16, M.S. ’18 said that when she was rejected by a physics Ph.D. program in December 2016, she was concerned about taking on more debt for a master’s program.
“I strongly desired to continue my studies into graduate school, but doing so meant that I would need to finance myself as a master’s student until I could get accepted into the Ph.D. program,” Verkest said. “It was a difficult decision to be taking out more student loans rather than getting a job to pay off my existing ones.”
Verkest said Jim’s support allowed her to complete her master’s coursework, after which she was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Wayne State. She expects to begin writing her thesis this year.
“In addition to stability, Dr. Kaskas gave me validity and provided my family with relief. He helped me overcome a barrier of opportunity that otherwise could have kept me from pursuing graduate school,” Verkest said.
Wyatt Gage ’20, M.S. ’22 now works as an electrical engineer, but said he might not be where he is without the help he received from Kaskas.
“In 2018, I had a very difficult year of classes and was questioning my choice to continue studying physics, especially after the modern physics class. Beyond helping me afford my classes, the scholarship was also a very external sign of encouragement that I was on a good path and people appreciated the difficulty in the field of study I had chosen,” Gage said. “It was a push outside of my peer group and family that validated my choices and helped me double down and continue a challenging degree.”
Student support, forever
Harvir Dhindsa, a current master’s student, received the Kaskas scholarship in September and felt similar validation.
“I think imposter syndrome — through which one does not feel adequate — is prevalent, especially in STEM fields. This scholarship helped me realize that perhaps I was worth funding and that I knew what I was doing,” Dhindsa said.
Every year, students who have received Jim's scholarships meet with him for lunch, bonding over their shared love for physics.
Following this lunch Dhindsa said, “Dr. Kaskas struck me as a thoughtful person, and he was more than happy to nerd out about time travel, which I love.”
Endowed in perpetuity, Jim’s scholarships and support of students will indeed travel through time.