Cody Newman ’11 brought trademark talents to chemistry research and lacrosse faceoffs
By Andy Walter
Official practices hadn’t yet begun in 2008 when men’s lacrosse coach Peter Lasagna one day noticed senior Craig Blake working with freshman midfield prospect Cody Newman in Merrill Gym.
The two were facing each other, hunched over — the classic faceoff position.
And as Lasagna approached, he heard something unexpected from a boom box nearby. Not pump-it-up music but the familiar sound of a lacrosse faceoff: the command “set,” which tells players to get ready, followed by the whistle, starting the action.
The recording would repeat, and each time the cadence between “set” and whistle was slightly different, as it is in a game. “I was stunned,” recalls Lasagna, who’s been a college head coach for 19 years. “I had never heard of that before or seen it before. But what a great idea!”
In fact, Newman had made the recordings himself, back in high school in Montclair, N.J., and brought them to Bates.
About the time that Lasagna was discovering Newman’s creative ability to break down and refine key parts of his sport, something similar was happening in Dana Chemistry Hall, where Professor of Chemistry Rachel Austin noticed Newman’s similarly intense and thorough academic work.
Among other things, Austin is an oil expert. She knows how certain enzymes can break down crude oil into water and carbon dioxide (useful for oil-spill cleanups), and how heat and pressure can turn biomass into what’s called pyrolysis oil.
In this latter work, Austin is working with the Forest Byproducts Research Institute, headquartered at the University of Maine. Specifically, she’s part of one project to find ways to turn wood waste into heating and transportation fuels.
Unrefined pyrolysis oil has water and oxygen in it, making it ineffective as a lubricant or energy source, so researchers are trying to find catalysts that can kick-start various chemical reactions to refine the oil.
Enter Newman, whose honors thesis evaluated catalysts containing the metal ruthenium. As a junior, his thesis proposal won a national Beckman scholarship for outstanding undergraduate research. As a senior, Newman won the Milton L. Lindholm Scholar-Athlete Award for the highest GPA among varsity athletes, at 3.94.
Newman accomplishes so much “without coming across as a person who obsesses and frets about his work.”
“Cody’s work,” Austin says, “is beginning to give us a way to understand how and why certain catalysts work the way that they do.” His contribution, she adds, “moves us beyond just trying something and hoping for the best, which is where we have been.”
Newman’s thesis is remarkable in another sense, Austin says. “I’ve been sitting at my desk turning his thesis into a publication. In 15 years at Bates, I have never been able to start with a student thesis and turn it into a manuscript.”
In lacrosse, Newman is a faceoff specialist, meaning he trots onto the field at the start of each quarter and after each goal. When the official gives the “down” command, Newman and his opponent place their hands and crosses on the ground, parallel to the midfield line.
The official places the ball between the players’ nets, gives the “set” command, and blows the whistle. By rule, the official must vary the cadence between “set” and the whistle.
Thus sprung into action, the players try to outmuscle and outmaneuver each other. Tactically, “it’s like a game of rock, paper, scissors,” Lasagna says, each player using various moves and counter moves to control the ball.
Newman, one of Bates’ primary faceoff men and team captain in 2011, won a respectable 46 percent of his career faceoffs, including 52 percent in 2010.
On the short and light side at 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds (the team’s other primary faceoff man, Harry Kim ’12, is bigger and stronger), Newman uses quickness to beat his opponent. Making his move right at the whistle — pushing legality — became one of Newman’s calling cards, honed by those recordings in the lab of his own devising.
Besides quickness and strength, a faceoff specialist needs to be intelligent, analytical, and inventive, Lasagna says. Faceoff tactics continually change, so “if you’re not constantly working at it and trying to improve, you can’t keep up.” In Newman, Bates lacrosse “had one of the brightest students and one of the toughest.”
“He is extraordinarily hard-working,” Austin adds, noting that Newman is one of those rare people who accomplish so much “without coming across as a person who obsesses and frets about his work.”
Which is partly why his honors thesis is a manuscript waiting to happen. His thesis results “raise far more interesting questions than they answer, which is what scientists love,” Austin says. “Because the results are so clear, the questions the results raise are far more nuanced than the questions we were asking at the start of the project.”
Along those lines, Newman, whose immediate post-graduate plans involve continued research with Austin, is asked if the mindset he brings to faceoffs is at all like those in research.
Yes, he says. “We’re all role players on a team. No one does everything. You do your role to the best of your ability. The parallel in research is you’re working with other people to try and move a project forward.”
In the academic realm, Newman’s command of various research skills is called “competence.” It’s high praise in the academic realm even if it sounds like an understatement in the rest of our overstated world.
“Non-scientists don’t often understand the magnitude of the compliment intended by ‘competent,’” Austin says. “The ability to set a goal and meet it, in spite of whatever sort of technical hurdles there are, is one of the most important qualities a scientist can have.
“And Cody has it.”